5th September 2018
The beautiful Prague morning was bright and practically inviting me to go out and explore. As my eyes scanned for the Sandeman’s trademark red umbrella near Old Town, the memories of the past 24 hours filled my mind.
The beautiful rainy morning, the early breakfast at Avenue Café in Budapest, bidding bye to Jos and Julia (who were the sweetest roomies ever), and the journey to the airport filled my mind. The Ryanair experience had been eventful to say the least – I learnt the hard way that Ryanair charges a LOT for airport check-in and printing the boarding pass at the airport (more often than not, it is a multiple of the price one pays for the ticket).
That being said, I was blown away by the kindness and the helping nature of the people in both Budapest and Prague. The evening had been far more eventful, with a self-guided tour (more like wandering around actually) of the not-so-crowded Prague Castle before I returned to my room under the stars at Hostel Franz Kafka.
I met a couple of nice people who would share the room with me – my Romanian roommate Medeea, and Chinese roommate Sun (who had just come in from Austria for a day).
Coming back to the beautifully bright Prague morning, Sun and I found ourselves waiting for the free walking tour to begin among a sea of tourists. After being divided into two groups, we found ourselves allocated to a young energetic tour guide named Sarah. Our tour began with a brief introduction session at the Old Town Square, after which she showed us that Prague was a melting pot for different architectural styles – Gothic, Viennese and Baroque to name a few.
She mentioned that Prague was a paradise for filmmakers – they could be in many places at the same time without moving much at all – buildings with different styles of architecture stood literally next to each other. We joked that Prague made teleportation possible – it gave us the ability to travel to a multitude of places in a matter of mere seconds!
“Look out for King Charles if you lose track” Sarah beckoned, pulling out a puppet and holding it up while explaining how King Charles IV had been the prime reason why Prague is what it is today.
Having purchased the city from his father, he worked hard to expand Prague’s boundaries and make it one of the most prosperous cities in Europe at the time. Sarah knew that most of us weren’t inclined towards history and hence tried to make the tour interactive and slipped in nuggets of factoids while explaining about different places and their historical significance.
“Look carefully,” she said while pointing to a building nearby, “the oldest thing on the building, centuries old and yet understood by everyone.” Pointing to an image of the one-horned sheep, she explained that 13th century Prague comprised mostly of illiterate peasants who found an ingenious method to communicate addresses – the images of animals. Interestingly quite a few buildings in the Old Town Square still had the images of animals on them.
The free walking tour turned out to be a walk through Prague’s history – from the 13th century to the present. We discussed the evolution of Christianity in Prague, the corruption and greed that consumed the Church (to the extent that people paid the Church for pardoning their sins ahead of time) and the role of reformatory thinkers like Jan Hus in moulding Prague’s history. It is fascinating how the nature of problems plaguing societies is similar even after centuries – we have more to learn from our history than we can possibly imagine. Speaking of Jan Hus, it was astounding to realize the impact of tiny things shaping an entire country’s future. Being a priest fluent in German and Latin he chose to preach to the peasants in Czech, which was their local language. We discussed his torturous death (being burnt at the stake, having his heart ripped out and bones broken with clubs before his ashes were thrown into the river) and how it inspired a generation of revolutionary reformers who led the Hussite wars against the Church. I was not surprised to find that modern day Czech are not religious – approximately 79% of the Czechs don’t declare their religion or identify themselves as atheists.
Our journey on foot brought us to the Estates Theatre, which had hosted Mozart post his departure from Vienna. In stark contrast to its reception in Vienna (where he wasn’t received well after struggling for six long years), his composition “The Marriage of Figaro” was welcomed with a 30-minute standing ovation in Prague. I guess sometimes new beginnings are all that we need, and that starting afresh may actually turn out to be pretty fruitful.
We proceeded to the Zephyr, which was a delightful restaurant with really hospitable staff. Heeding Sarah’s advice I chose the apple strudel, which turned out to be seriously delicious – the chunks of apple gave the dessert a great texture, and the sweetness wasn’t overpowering. The best part the cream served on the side balanced the dish and made it feel more than satisfactory.
The Jewish Quarter was one of the last places on our tour. Sarah mentioned that place was essentially a ghetto between the Old Town Square and the Vltava River, and over centuries the Jews were forced to settle in that tiny area. With time the ghetto grew more and more crowded and the living conditions worsened as Jews poured in from different places like Germany and Austria. The ghetto underwent a number of structural changes, during which many of the buildings were flattened, the roads widened and the entire area got a massive facelift. Today the place is the home to the crème-de-la-crème and is called Parizska Street.
One of the most interesting aspects of the Jewish Quarters was the cemetery. As the land available was very limited the cemetery expanded vertically instead of horizontally, with mortal remains being buried in levels. It is estimated that the cemetery now has 11-12 levels of mortal remains and is the final resting place of about 100,000 people.
To be honest, the discussion we had in the Jewish Quarter is definitely something I will remember for a very long time. The atrocities that they suffered over centuries, especially during Holocaust, was just heartbreaking. I strongly believe that humans are inherently good nature and kind, and hence couldn’t (and still can’t) understand how someone could be so cruel against members of their own species. Had I more time left in Czech, I would have visited the Terezin Concentration Camp and Kutna Hora for sure.
On a parting note, Sarah shared a few more interesting nuggets about Prague. Being conveniently ignored by the Red Army, Czechoslovakia was liberated from the Nazis by the general population. Between 1918 and 2018, the Czech have witnessed 9 changes in the regime. The last regime change was the Velvet Revolution of 1989, which was a non-violent transition of power led by students.
The three hours I spent on the walking tour were certainly something I will cherish for a long time. I guess going on a guided tour of the city helps people understand the city and connect to it on a deeper level than they would otherwise have. A blend of history, culture, architecture, language and food, the walking tour is an experience I would certainly recommend visiting Prague. If you do plan to go to Prague in the near future, here is the link to Sandeman’s Tours.