Thursday, June 14, 2012

Prague













Trdelník
I must admit that by the time I had come to this point in the year and had gone on so many incredible trips that I was a little tired.  I love to travel and check out new places and ideas about life, but I was feeling a little worn out, especially after my London/Oslo/Nutshell/Brighton extravaganza.  Still, everyone had told me that Prague was amazing, and I was really counting on it to be that amazing.  I'm happy to share that Prague was every bit as fun as everyone told me it would be.  Maybe more!



Initially, I was trying to decide on a trip to either Krakow or Prague.  Now, after choosing both, I realize that these cities really are not interchangeable just because they're in eastern Europe.  The two cities present the visitor with completely different attractions, languages, foods, and other traditions.  Prague is more touristy, but it's easily big enough to handle its tourists - unlike the Vatican.  Before I went on this trip, people told me Prague was magical, that its streets were pristine, and I would feel como si fuera walking in a fairy tale.  I found that to be true.  To me, the buildings looked like adorable, mismatched dollhouses.

5,000 Czech Koruna CZK = Approx. 250 USD
One thing that defines this trip, making it stand out from all my other trips, is that I met really cool people in the hostel where I stayed, and together, we explored the city.  Usually when I travel by myself, I meet some people where I stay but don't actually tour the city with them.  In Prague, I spent each of my three days there exploring different parts of the city with a variety people from all over the world.  The hostel, Czech Inn, created a very friendly, welcoming vibe.  I think the fact that the hostel had a restaurant/bar on the first floor helped.



Old City


At the hostel, I met many solo travelers who had saved up and were perpetually on vacation for 5 (ish) months.  These super-travelers shared with me that their plan was to visit about 20 different cities, spending two to five days in each.  This seemed especially popular with the tourists from Australia and New Zealand simply because they live so far away from Europe that once they arrive, it's more economical to stay for a while.  However, I also met travelers from Canada and the UK taking this type of trip.  My travel style is a little different since I live in Madrid (close to the rest of Europe) and because I have a job during the week.  A fantastic, fabulous, super-awesome, incredible, amazing job that I will miss very much when I leave Spain in July.  I travel every time I have a 4, 5, or 6-day weekend; every time there's a break; and occasionally on a 3-day weekend.
Prague is like walking into a fairy tale.




My style is to spend a few days traveling, 
return to work in Madrid for a few days, 
and repeat.  
It's a good life.







First Night in Prague - May 11, 2012

I arrived at the hostel in Prague just in time for dinner.  Right away, the people in the hostel were super-friendly and invited me to go with them.  We were all traveling by ourselves and decided we could all go our separate ways and eat alone in five different places, or we could go together and have some people to talk to.  Of course, we chose the latter.  So off we went, an eclectic group from Canada, Germany, Germany, Japan, and America.  (Just to clarify, when I say "America", I'm referring to the USA, not the continents.)  At dinner, as you can imagine, we had a fun conversation about different places, religions, family backgrounds, governments, accents, stereotypes, foods, and more.  When prompted, I assured Miss Canada that I was not from the south and didn't say "Amurica" (shout out to Natasha!).  Nevertheless, I had earned myself a new nickname.

Braised Beef, Dumplings, & Whipped Cream
Everything in Prague, especially food, is cheap, which is awesome because it means that I ate really well on this trip.  For the first dinner, I ordered braised beef and a side of dumplings.  We were all surprised to find out that beef is frequently served topped with whipped cream and cranberries in the Czech Republic.  Like a beef-cream sundae.  It's quite an unusual flavor if you're not expecting it, but it's not bad.  The cranberries just make it feel like Thanksgiving.  We also didn't expect to learn that a Czech dumpling is quite different than an Asian dumpling or a Polish pierogi.  A Czech dumpling is more like a thick slice of sweet bread, sometimes with onions.  The entire dish was served in a savory, gravy-ish sauce.

Czech Beer Advertisement
Czech beer is also kind of a big deal there, so we all split a few of those.  Ordering beer opened up a whole other conversation at the table: Stereotypes that are based on at least a little bit of truth.  I'll explain: The Germans ordered seconds, the Japanese girl was like, "Oh...Asian glow," and Miss Canada and I split a traditional Czech beer since neither of us liked beer enough to finish an entire drink by ourselves.  All five of us couldn't get over how cheap the meals were, considering their quality.  My enormous braised beef entree was about $5.50 in USD, and the beer was about 50 cents (USD).  We decided that Prague is expensive to get to, but cheap once you're there.

Later that night, we strolled around the town and met up with a girl from Romania (if I remember correctly), who had moved to Prague a few months earlier and was a friend of the Germans'.  Honestly, this Romanian girl we met is the only person I've ever met while traveling who thought it was special to be from the United States.  At least, she's the only one who said it out loud.  Caught a bit off guard by her awed response, I just smiled and said, "Yeah, it's a cool place.  It's different than everywhere else.  But then, where isn't different?"  The six of us did some exploring and ended up a little, Bohemian bar.  This place was totally non-touristy, which was kind of fun.  Our German buddies ordered more beer, and we all sat around watching a small group play the piano and sing.  None of us knew the words, but we had a nice, festive time.
Walls of Prague's Metro
The Romanian girl also helped us buy metro passes for the evening, a process which turned out to be unexpectedly complicated.  We were lucky to have her help.

First Full Day in Prague - May 12, 2012

The next morning, Miss Canada (who I'll refer to as Natasha, her actual name) and I compared itineraries, found that we wanted to visit some of the same things, and set out to "czech out" the city of Prague.  Somewhat groggily, we also decided that people who snore should be barred from staying in large rooms at hostels.  Natasha had been traveling for over 100 days in a row and visited a total of (I think) 19 European cities.
The Dancing House
She and I agreed that dealing with public transportation every time you arrive in a new city (especially when it's every few days) just adds extra stress, so we decided to walk.  We left the hostel and headed toward the river, passing the Dancing House on the way.  The Dancing House is an abstract building that is said to look like a couple doing some sort of ballroom dance.  Though I couldn't see figures dancing in the architecture, I appreciated the unusual design of the building.  It just looked cool, and sometimes that's enough.

Our goal for the day was to visit the castle and many of Prague's famous attractions along the way.  Turning to walk towards the Old Town Square, we happened onto the Astronomical Clock.  The clock tells time and a bunch of other things.  I never made it to the free walking tour, so I can't explain much about it, but I'm sure wikipedia can explain a bit to you if you're curious.  Anyhow, there are tons of dials, gears, unique features, and astrological signs on the clock, and it's fascinating to look at.  Around the top face of the clock, there are four historically and stereotypically hated figures, and every hour they move when the clock performs its display and a trumpeter appears at the top of the tower to play.

The Astronomical Clock
Apparently, the Astronomical Clock is one of the worst rated attractions in Prague simply because everyone expects its show to be more exciting than it actually is.  I think those visitors probably had unrealistic expectations or didn't learn about what the clock did before deciding to see it.  Personally, I enjoyed seeing the clock.

Bohemia Bagel
Before crossing the famous Charles Bridge, we decided to have lunch at Bohemia Bagel.  Since bagels really aren't popular at all in Madrid, it was really nice to have such a selection of great bagels in Prague.  I ordered a blueberry bagel, Natasha bought a jalapeño bagel, and we both got the daily soup.
The Locks Wall









After lunch, we strolled over the bridge, took a quick look at all the kiosks of earrings and printed watercolors the sellers were claiming to be originals, and continued down the other end of the bridge to see the John Lennon Wall.  On the way, we ran into the Locks Wall.  People who are in love write their names on a lock, lock it to the wall, and throw the key into the river to symbolize ever-lasting love.  Don't get too excited.  I didn't have any locks for the wall.  No romantic stories here.  That shouldn't surprise you.


Jumping with John Lennon
Photo by Natasha Santos
The John Lennon Wall is one of the main things that made me want to come to Prague.  As far as I'm aware, the story behind the wall is that the land belonged to an embassy, or somehow it didn't belong to the former communist government.  As the people suffered under the oppression of the communist government in what was then Czechoslovakia, people began to spray paint messages about peace and freedom on this wall.  Often, the messages were (and still are) lyrics from Beatles songs.

The Beatles sang quite a bit about peace and love, so I suppose this makes sense.  That said, some people did think that Lennon was a communist - I really don't know the whole story behind this.  Like I said, I never took the free walking tour.  When I saw the wall, there was a spray painted portrait of John Lennon, an enormous peace sign, a row of the faces from Across the Universe, and many smaller designs.  I suppose I should have thought of something meaningful to write before going to see the wall, but I didn't.  If I ever go back, I'd probably write, "There are places I'll remember all my life, though some have changed" (Beatles).  I'm sure it has a different and perhaps more cheerful meaning for me than them, but that's okay.

The John Lennon Wall - Photo by Natasha Santos
"No Standing, Just Dancing"
Photo by Natasha Santos
I thought the Lennon Wall was so cool that I actually went to visit it four times while I was in Prague for three days.  What interested me perhaps most about the wall was how alive it was.  By alive, I mean that rather than being a thing of the past tourists came to view, people kept adding to it.  The wall had new designs and messages each time I saw it.  Later in the day, Natasha and I passed by the wall again and took a few more photos.  On the second day, I visited it with a traveler from Egypt.  On the third day, I visited with a group from the hostel - Laura, Kevin, Jimmy, and two others from the UK, the US, Sweden, the US, and Japan/Holland.

After we left the wall, we went to the castle.  Well, actually, we wandered for quite a while searching, passed an absinthe café, and eventually ended up at the Prague Castle.  Inside, we quickly checked out the cathedral and decided not to go on a tour of the apartments.  The castle was nice.  The cathedral was...you know, a cathedral.  The stained glass windows were pretty, as we knew they would be.
Cathedral at the Prague Castle
Absinthe Café
Leaving the castle, we strolled down the hill back towards the river, and were treated to a beautiful view of Prague.  Farther down the lane, we passed that same absinthe café, this time going in to check the place out.  The little café looked like it had so much character that it really would have been a shame to pass it by a second time.  They had an extensive menu of absinthe drinks and absinthe-infused ice cream.  What a way to ruin ice cream!

By the way, in case you were wondering, absinthe is legal in Prague.

Trdelnik



Leaving the café, we headed down the street and thankfully found a bakery selling trdelnikTrdelnik is a Czech pastry that is shaped like the outside of a cylindrical prism without the top and bottom surfaces.  They cook these by wrapping a string of dough around a pole, placing the pole on a rotating thing over an open flame, patting the freshly cooked dough in cinnamon and sugar, then removing the pole and putting either nutella or plum jelly on the inside.  It's delicious and cost us 60 CZK, about 3 USD.

Trdelnik with Nutella
Playing or Eating?















Second Full Day in Prague - May 13, 2012

On my second day in Prague, I decided to explore the city with a traveler from Egypt.  Quite the accomplished traveler, she speaks five languages fluently and has lived and worked in many different places.  I had never met anyone from Egypt before and knew this would be an interesting day.  Right away when we met a day earlier, I could tell that she and I had very different ideas.  However, one reason I travel is to meet different people and learn what I can about them and their lifestyles and ideas.  I didn't expect to have an intensely thought-provoking day in the middle of my happy-go-lucky trip to Prague, but what better time would there ever be to put that philosophy into practice than on that particular day?

Another lovely building in Prague
I wrote about my second day in Prague separately from my blog, and I'll quote a bit of what I wrote here in italics.  Anything in regular print I added later.

"I made a conscious decision to be open minded and friendly, and to look at this as an intriguing learning opportunity.  All said and done, our day was a little awkward, a little tense, a little friendly, and very thought provoking.  We were tiptoeing on egg shells for a good part of the day, but we made it work."

"I was surprised when she told me Prague's Spanish Synagogue was on her itinerary for the day, but took it in stride, and accompanied her on the visit.  I wanted to see too.  There, she asked me some questions about Jewish traditions, and I tried to answer as thoroughly as I could.  It seemed to me that she also wanted to use the day to learn about other people/cultures even though when she realized I was Jewish she literally said,"Oh, I wouldn't have guessed."  In response, I probably made a face at her that communicated, "Think carefully about what you say next because it may form most of my opinion of you."  (Sadly, I do not have a picture of that unusually specific facial expression.)"  

I would have been content to have a friendly day, leaving the topics of nationality and religion at the curb, but she seemed very interested in opening that can of worms, so we discussed them.  I was very careful not to judge her on the basis of her nationality or her religion, and I expected that same courtesy and respect in return.  After all, is that so much to ask?

"At the Spanish Synagogue, we had different views on the tradition of divided seating for men and women.  Sitting above or stashed in the back makes me feel like there's really no reason for me to even bother going to a service.  She thought divided seating was appropriate because it allowed the focus to remain on prayers.  Though I had heard that reasoning before from many different people, I still felt that if certain people couldn't focus, then that was their own problem, and that half the congregation shouldn't have to accommodate.  We never came to an agreement, but our discussion was interesting, and it was interesting to listen to her point of view."
The Spanish Synagogue
"I mentioned that it was very unusual to see a synagogue intact like this one in Europe since the Jews had been kicked out of so many cities that now only have Jewish museums.  She said if she'd been kicked out, or her ancestors had been, that she would have gone back and still felt a right to the land.  I mentioned that it could just be a return to hostility and that the people and community would be gone.  She said she'd still come back to claim what was hers, and I maintained that I'd rather be somewhere friendlier.  Perhaps these are some of the differences between growing up in Egypt and America.  I don't expect restrictions on women and I don't expect authoritative hostility to be ever-present in my life.  I don't view those as things to work around either; rather, I expect them to be fully absent from my life."


Museum of Communism Poster
"Later that afternoon, we went to the Museum of Communism, a museum which teaches visitors about the horrors and violence of Prague's communist history.  Before going to the museum, this was a topic about which I knew very little.  I was appalled by the explanations on the plaques, the government's blatant lies, and the police violence against civilians as shown in the documentary.  I suppose when you have restricted access to facts and information, you believe what you're told because that's all you have."  

"Still, for me, the concepts were abstract horrors.  The documentary was just a documentary.  For my travel buddy of the day, watching the documentary was a more emotional experience.  Upon seeing the police attack protesters in the film, she told me that that was exactly how the protests during the past year in Egypt had been."  


This band was persecuted for playing
concerts with lyrics about critical thinking.
Technically, the musicians were arrested
for not having a performance license.
·Museum of Communism·
"She had been there protesting and knew people who had died or lost limbs.  Still, she said the protests were important and that she was willing to give her life for the cause.  This statement, uttered with complete sincerity, struck me and highlighted the truth that our two lives are worlds apart, even though she would be considered very modern and liberal for her background.  Aside from my family, there's nothing I'd give my life for.  Certainly not a "greater cause".  I value my life.  I have heard it said that this idea of self-preservation, coupled with individualism, is very American, perhaps because we (well, the founding fathers) designed our country in such a way so we can be like that."

Perhaps one of our biggest differences was the disparity between our personalities, not to mention the reasons they formed as they are.  Thus far, I've had a pretty nice life - no hardship, no oppression, no unjust struggles, etc.  Perhaps as a result, my personality, especially when meeting new people, is fairly easy-going.  In contrast, her struggles seemed so ever-present throughout her life that I believe they shaped her outlook on life and argumentative personality.  Whereas I could have easily  left several serious talking-points without discussion, but she could not have, since the topics so strongly make her who she is and underscore what she fights for.

"After leaving the museum, we went to Prague's shopping mall.  Not surprisingly, we had very different taste in clothing, but I think that was the least of our differences.  After having argued over several things, a t-shirt didn't seem like that big of a deal.  Looking around, I enjoyed seeing what stores and styles Prague offered."

"Later that night, I picked a restaurant for dinner.  Though it was the only one still open, she made it clear that she disapproved of my restaurant choice and then ate in silence.  By the end of the day, her behavior bothered me, and something about me clearly bothered her."
I took some photos from the Charles Bridge before going back to the hostel.
To be honest, looking back, I'm surprised the day was as tense as it was.  I meet people from everywhere, have friends from many parts of the world, and am pretty friendly, so I wasn't expecting to have a tense day.  Frankly, I am trying as hard as I can to pull a glittery, silver lining from this experience because I like to be polite in public, online spaces.  But maybe I should just take it for what it truly was: An uncomfortable day with a person I disagreed with on almost everything.  We made it work, but it was uncomfortable.  It's natural for different people to disagree, and it would be superficial to sugar-coat that.  If I had to draw a shiny conclusion from this day, I'd call it a thought-provoking glimpse into a lifestyle I'll thankfully never experience.

Third Full Day in Prague - May 14, 2012

We stopped at a café halfway up the mountain.
On my third day in Prague, a group of six of us decided to take a free walking tour.  Our eclectic group included Laura from the UK, Jimmy from Sweden, Kevin from the US, another American traveler, me, and a guy from Japan who lived in Holland.  (I feel bad that I don't remember two of their names.)  They were all traveling for any amount of time from one to five months and going from city to city.  We had a great time comparing what we thought of each city.  The best questions of the day were, "Hey, where are you going next?" and, "Where were you yesterday?"  Most of them were headed to Vienna or Berlin after Prague.  Anyhow, upon finding out that the tour was not free, but actually pretty expensive, we decided not to do it.  Instead, we made our way to the Petrin Tower.

Petrin Tower
We decided that at a quick glance the Petrin Tower kind of looks like the Eiffel Tower in Paris, except that the Petrin Tower is octagonal while the Eiffel Tower only has four sides.  Rather than taking the funicular, we decided to walk up the mountain.  I've done this three different times, and each time I reach the top of one of these mountains, I realize I should have taken the funicular.  Fourth time's I charm?  Let's hope so.

Like always, I brought my water bottle in case I got thirsty.  Laura and I were amused to note that the guys were alternating between drinking beer and coffee while climbing a mountain.  Personally, I don't think that pairs well with mountain climbing, but that's just my humble opinion.

Anyhow, we bought tickets and climbed the tower.  At the top, we were presented with a beautiful view over the city and the river.  Of course, we all took a lot of photos.

Back to the Lennon Wall!
We decided to bajar la montaña and eat lunch closer to the Lennon Wall.  On the way back down the mountain, we started out taking the paths.  Then, the genius guys decided they wanted to take a short cut down the steep edge instead of following the winding paths.  Naturally, I was the one who pointed out that short cuts in nature end badly in almost every book, movie, and other type of story.  So of course, I was the only one who tripped and fell tumbling down a good portion of that mountain.  It was a bit of a bloody experience, but fortunately I came away with nothing worse than a sprained ankle and a lot of large bruises.  It could have been worse.  When the group rushed over to help me Laura asked, "Did that feel awful?  It looked really bad."  Why, yes, it did feel awful.  The worse part was that I got grass stains all over my favorite jeans.

John Lennon Wall
Arriving at the bottom of the mountain a bit quicker than we anticipated, we set out for the Lennon Wall.  I was quite interested to find that many of the designs from the first day had already been covered with new designs and messages. 

Near the bridge, we stopped for lunch.  Once again, I ordered the traditional braised beef with whipped cream and dumplings that looked like circles of bread.  Maybe I would have liked vegetables more as a child if they had whipped cream on top.  Seriously, I think the Czech people are onto something here.  After lunch, we went to a museum about the production of chocolate and returned to the hostel later that afternoon.

The Charles Bridge
On the way back, we crossed the Charles Bridge.  In the middle of the bridge, my travel buddies explained that there was a statue in the middle that was supposed to bring you good luck if you touched it and made a wish.  So, of course, we all stopped and made a wish.  I've never been superstitious, but a little luck, whether it works or not, certainly never hurts.

Making Wishes on the Charles Bridge
On the Charles Bridge at Night
I spent my last night in Prague with my crew from the hostel in the hostel's bar for trivia night.  We knew very few of the answers, but had a great time hanging out.  Two new people to the room joined us.  Our team of five included Laura from the UK, Kevin from the US, a girl from Canada, a girl from Australia, and me.  We ordered a bunch of drinks and pizzas to share.  Just a quick note - If you ever go to Prague and order a drink that arrives with a flaming sugar cube on top, you should absolutely blow out the flame before dumping the sugar cube into the glass.  Words of wisdom.
       

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