Monday, March 3, 2014

Prague, Czech It Out

Prague has always been high on my list of places to visit. It has always sounded romantic, beautiful, a bit mysterious, and until recently very inexpensive.

When we left for Prague, our last stop on our 5 city Central Europe trip in January 2013, I was absolutely thrilled to be heading to the Czech Republic. But by the time we left, my rose colored glasses had been removed. The city is beautiful for sure, but even in cold, drizzly winter it was teeming with more tourists than I had experienced even in the high season in Paris.

We arrived at night, after a 5 hour train ride from Vienna, and were picked up by the company we had rented our apartment from. Our flat was perfectly located just a few steps from the Old Town Square, great for sightseeing, not so great for dealing with the crowds of tourists.

After the six of us laid claim to bedrooms we headed out in search of a cocktail and a bite to eat. Passing through the square we were all struck by how absolutely lovely it was. The Christmas market was still in full swing and a massive Christmas tree kept watch over all the vendors. The famed clock tower looked straight out of "Harry Potter".

Each morning we would grab these delicious cinnamon style rolls from one of the stalls at the Christmas market and a coffee from the Starbucks also located there. East meets west.

On our first full day we strolled around the winding medieval streets, bombarded by t-shirt shops and money exchange outlets. We settled on a traditional looking restaurant for lunch and were started off with shots of Becherovka said to encourage the appetite. Czech beer, fried cheese, and goulash followed. Diet food this is not.

We then gathered in front of the Astronomical Clock in time to watch it perform on the hour, along with about 1000 others. This was where we were meeting up with a free walking tour, which we thought would be the best way for us to see the most in our 2 short days in town.

Our guide ended up being more interested in telling everyone the pitfalls of exchanging money on the streets with strangers (wtf??) than explaining much about the buildings and history of Prague. As it was cold and rainy and we were all a bit bored with his lectures, we ditched the tour half way through and walked ourselves around a bit before returning to the Old Square where the crowds had gathered again, and the clock was doing it's thing.

The next morning Dayne, Caitlin and I set out to the Jewish Quarter, a small area consisting of the remaining Jewish buildings and archives that the Jews were allowed to keep here, the other Jewish neighborhoods were razed during WWII. Our first stop was the Old New  Synagogue where all men were asked to don a yarmulke before entering.

We walked to the Ceremonial Hall from here, a 2-story building with many displays of Jewish relics and peek-a-boo views of the neighboring cemetery.

The Jewish Cemetery is the small, fenced off burial grounds of thousands. Confined to such a small plot of land, the graves are overlapping and stacked on top of each other. Markers sit haphazardly, decaying, many of their engravings barely legible. It's a maze, a sea of the deceased. It's astonishing.

Next was the 2-story Klaus  Synagogue. Here there were more exhibits including some showing common life rituals.

Our last stop was the Spanish Synagogue named for its style, also housing hundreds of displays of artifacts and a treasure trove of photographs from the time during the Nazi occupation. 

We met up with Forest and Thibault for lunch at one of the restaurants our airport driver had recommended to us, Restaurant Mlejnice. Dayne and Thibault both ordered the pork shank which was possibly the largest thing I have ever witnessed someone eat.

The six of us regrouped after lunch and walked over the beautiful bridge and then up to the storybook castle on the hill. Again, even with the rain, gloom, and cold the bridge was person to person tourists. Unfortunately by the time we arrived at the castle both it and the cathedral were closing for the day but we did encounter the dapper guard detail as they marched around the castle square and even harassed a poor lone guard in charge of the Christmas tree.

After admiring the views from the hill we made our way down and back across the now dark bridge. Failing to get into the other recommended restaurant of our choice we all grabbed hot grilled sausages and fresh fried chips from the vendors in the Christmas market and made the short walk back to our apartment to have dinner.

The Christmas market would be our final meal the next day as Dayne and I cobbled together the last of our Czech crowns and bought as many grams of roasted 'Prague Ham' as we could. Elbowing our way past the square of tourists, we walked to our apartment and devoured the hot and delicious plate of pork and bread.
Prague photos here.

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