Dobrý den, Prosím and Děkuji. Hello, please and thank you. If I thought my German was sparse, being in the Czech Republic was an even more illuminating experience. Before going, I was repeatedly told that everybody there speaks English, and that one need not worry about Czech too much. This is more or less true – I only encountered a few people who didn’t speak English, leading to a hilarious but ultimately successful game of charades in a newsagency. All that said, the language barrier can still be quite isolating; everyone around you is incomprehensible, in shops, on the train, on the street. It’s an interesting feeling.
Unfamiliarity is also often the source of mistake-making. It being my first time in Prague, I made the error of taking out entirely too much money each time I went to an AT machine. This wasn’t because I didn’t do the calculation – at the time, one euro was about 26 CZK – but rather because things in Prague are surprisingly cheap. For example, a great many bars advertise beers at around 30 koruna. It’s actually pretty great. Many places also accept euros out of concession to their proximity to the euro zone, but they typically attach their own extortionate exchange rates.
It must be said that Berlin – which we had just left – is not the most beautiful city in the world. This makes a startling contrast when you step off the train in Prague, which is gorgeous. The city is packed with beautiful buildings from various historical periods and walking the streets holds the perpetual promise of ever more priceless treasures. It’s a true delight to wander in Prague, and a particular pleasure to take the walk from the summit of Prague Castle, through the old town and up to the museum. It is lovely.
The aforementioned castle – typically referred to as Prague Castle in English, or Pražský hrad in Czech – was one of the first tourist activities my friend and I had planned to do together. It’s one of the few such places in the world that still consistently operates as a government building and isn’t a single structure but more like a traditional castle town, with several different admission tickets available for the different sections. There’s far too much to see there in one day, so most tickets are valid for the following day as well.
The castle dominates the top of a hill over the city and as such the views from the top are quite impressive. It was from here that it really struck me how different this place looks compared to a Western European city – the colours, the architectural styles, everything is subtly unlike cities like Paris or Brussels.
In terms of the castle town itself, one of our first stops was a guided tour of the two most well-known attractions; St. Vitus’ Cathedral and the Old Palace. The former still functions as a place of worship today and also has the distinction of housing the tombs of saints and historical figures, such as Saint John of Nepomuk. Architecturally, it’s a baffling, stunning Gothic masterwork, but I found the history to be the most engaging aspect.
The Old Palace, by contrast, is no longer operational in an official capacity as the locus of government operations is – sensibly – the New Palace. Being mostly a tourist attraction these days, the older building is a great way to see how the royalty of old lived their lives, with the Great Hall, Audience Chambers and reproductions of the Crown Jewels all being on display. The guide we had was very good – she had a slightly unusual, narrative way of recounting the history of the saints and royals that called this place home.
One of the highlights of the castle turned out to be the Golden Lane, a small alleyway which used to house soldiers’ residences as well as tradespeople and artists. It’s also noteworthy for having been the home of Franz Kafka for a certain length of time, and his house is now transformed into a store selling bellybutton fluff to tourists. I wish I could make a wisecrack about this being Kafkaesque, but frankly it’s entirely predictable and not at all surprising. They did have some nice postcards, though.
It was also in the Golden Lane, in a museum of armour and weaponry, that I got the opportunity to fire a crossbow. As unexpected as this was, it was a real delight, and I managed to get a couple of good shots and not embarrass myself too badly. It inspired a boyish longing for a crossbow of my very own – perhaps then, at last, people would take me seriously.
As we’re on the topic of not being taken seriously, one of the real struggles I’ve dealt with when “travelling light” – I hesitate to say it was really ‘backpacking’ despite only having a backpack – is the decision of what to pack and what to wear. This is never more obvious than when you decide to go to the Estates Theatre to see your first Opera, and realise you only have walking shoes and jeans at your disposition. Without so much as pair of nice pants – much less a crossbow – I must admit to feeling a little underdressed.
Ultimately, I need not have worried. The opera we went to see was Don Giovanni, by Mozart, and it would seem that this is a sort of ‘Baby’s First Opera’, insofar as it attracts a great many tourists. Many of these people had evidently also never been to the opera before and I certainly wasn’t the worst dressed – my shirt had a collar at least. As for the show itself, I loved it. This was a genuine surprise on my part, since I’d had no idea what to expect, but I found myself becoming immersed in the music and that passionate intensity of some of the songs. The Estates Theatre was also apparently the place where this opera premiered in 1787, albeit prior to numerous renovations.
History, castles, opera, architecture. All of these things are very lovely, but thoroughly unsatisfying to my inner child. His whiny voice and threats to soil himself became unbearable after a while, and so I gave in and went to visit Prague’s inner child toybox – the Národní technické muzeum.
Sweet Lord, what more can I say about the National Technical Museum that this picture doesn’t already tell you? Anyone who knows me will know that entering this room made me grin so hard that I was in serious danger of pulling facial muscles. And this is only one gallery – the enormous complex is spread out over seven floors and is essentially dedicated to technology of every kind; Clockwork, Chemistry, Photography, vehicles (both civilian and military), appliances, Metallurgy, Mining, Astronomy, Printing. I spent hours here, wandering the halls in a rapturous haze punctuated with gasps of delight every time I saw something exciting; trains, original Daguerreotypes, huge, mechanical printing presses, they have it all.
I loved this museum – it had my aforementioned inner child exploding out of the rotten carcass of adulthood like an alien parasite, and I only left – reluctantly – when I had already missed two meals and I was starting to feel sick to my stomach. I would go back to Prague just for this.
The rest of my time in Prague I mostly spent wandering. Several times I stopped for a drink or a snack, and was quite content to let the ebb and flow of the city take me wherever. Through the castle town and across Karlův most (Charles Bridge), I passed through the Old Town Square and saw the Pražský orloj – the Astronomical Clock – chime and climbed the exhausting, narrow staircase of the Powder Tower in the city for some truly lovely views as the sun started to set over the rooftops.
At the end of the day, eating a slice of Black Forest Cake in the warmth of a cheerful café not far from Wenceslas Square, I found myself very happy to be in Prague. It’s the sort of place I might have missed if I’d been travelling alone, and I’m grateful to my friend for suggesting it. Although the language barrier may be intimidating and the city a little unusual at times, it’s really a great town – I’m glad I visited.
Overwhelmed with the desire to see more photos that I gone and done? Very well, satisfy your photo lust here. If there can be no pleasing you with my paltry photos, then may I suggest you follow these instructions to simulate blindness, that you might briefly experience what it is like. I do this sometimes – it’s interesting.