When I left the US, the only city in Central Europe I thought I had a reasonable chance of reaching was Prague in the Czech Republic. It would take me off my track of Denmark to Germany to France to Spain, but I wanted to experience more than just Scandinavia and Western Europe. So I left my hostel in Berlin and headed back to the bus station I had arrived at a week earlier. I bought a seat on the next bus to Prague and I definitely had this sense that I was entering a more interesting part of the journey. Finding English speakers would be tougher, and navigating my way around might be more daunting. I was arriving in Prague after dark as well which concerned me a little, but turned out to be a non-issue. Although I didn’t care much for Prague at first, the city really grew on me. The thing that kept coming to mind when walking around Prague was just how ridiculously scenic the city is.
So the Czech Republic furthered the education I had in Berlin around the Cold War. The country used to be Czechoslovakia, and was a combination of what is now two countries… Czech Republic and Slovakia. It suffered under Nazi occupation during WWII, and ended up in the Soviet slice of the pie after the war. Technically, the Soviets liberated Czechoslovakia, but the whole way Nazi Germany was divided up was decided in the final months of WWII as Germany was losing the war. The Soviet Union brought communism and a state controlled economy to the country. There were bouts of revolutionary activity over the decades of communist rule, but it wasn’t until the USSR fell that Czechoslovakia gained democracy. This was actually relatively peaceful at that point, and is thus referred to as the Velvet Revolution. Since the country consisted of two diverse ethnic groups and languages… Czechs and Slovaks, it just became a matter of time before they split. Once again, this was peaceful, and since the early 1990’s, we now have the Czech Republic and Slovakia.So Prague is the capital of the country. The old square pictured above draws the most crowds and is probably what a lot of people from the US would consider a classic European city centre. I see a lot of squares similar to this these days, but the one in Prague has been my favorite.Just about anywhere you start wandering around the main city of Prague you see streets like this…
One of the main attractions in the Old Town Square is the astronomical clock. It was built in 1410 and is the third oldest clock in the world, and the oldest that actually still works. On every hour, a crowd gathers below the clock to watch the little show it puts on. The doors at the top open, and marienettes inside spin and walk around. A little skeleton man rings a bell. A trumpet is played at the top of the tower, and the tourists applaud. Yeah, it’s a very touristy thing, but if you happen to be wandering by five minutes before the hour, it’s worth sticking around.I was a bit put off by the volume of tourists my first day, and I know that sounds silly because I’m essentially a tourist as well. Backpackers like to think of themselves as travelers, adventurers or vagabonds and slightly better than the fanny pack, giant camera toting people on “holiday”. We stay in hostels or couchsurf instead of hotels. We take cheap buses or trains rides to our destinations instead of flying. We ride public transport instead of taxis. We walk around a lot more and avoid “hop-on, hop off” bus tours. We typically dress in normal clothes and blend in with “the locals”. However, at the end of the day, we’re temporary vistors who don’t speak the language or know all the customs, so we’re tourists.
Some gratuitous pictures of Prague’s beauty…
Every little cobblestone, street light, door and window seems to have been arranged to maintain this perfect ambiance of warmth and charm. I took several evening walks to see as much as possible. Sometimes with people I met that day and sometimes alone.
So I went on a paid castle tour which I kind of hate doing, but it was worth it for the people I met and had drinks with afterwards. Honestly, I don’t remember much about what our tour guide said. The castle is more of a complex or compound of buildings, and not an actual castle you enter through a drawbridge or something. There’s a giant gothic style church which is actually only one hundred years old. The tour took us across the Charles Bridge which is around 600 years old.
The bridge is filled with buskers, sketch artists and people selling various crafts and jewelry. I tried imagining what someone from the 16th century would think seeing all those tourists and vendors clogging the bridge. There are some really incredible views on the way to the castle.The highlight of the tour was afterwards when some of us joined our guide Lauren for drinks at this award winning brewery located in a monastery on the castle grounds. Lauren was from Minneapolis and had been living in Prague for a couple years. She was doing an internship, and had another six months or so left before she would leave. I also met this couple from England and we all had a good chat. After a couple hours, some of us were not content with calling it quits for the day, so a few of us joined Lauren for a walk back into the main town. We passed one of her favorite pubs on the way and we stopped in to have another round of awesome Czech beer. We exchanged travel stories and I enjoyed hearing about Lauren’s life as an expat and her take on Prague. She invited us along to her friend’s photography exhibit which turned out to be really eye opening. It was in this old church, and was about the persecution of the Roma people. I thought of Prague to be a very progressive society, but there’s a great deal of racism directed towards the Roma. The photographer had spent several months living amongst the Roma and most of the photos just showed scenes of daily life. Along with the photos were stories of verbal and physical attacks, efforts to keep the Roma uneducated and institutionalized obstacles to finding work. I was kind of familiar with the Roma situation in Europe, but just surprised a big city like Prague would be guilty of such behavior. All in all, the whole day was really fun and educational, and I enjoyed the randomness of jumping around from place to place.
For accommodations, I stayed in two hostels in Prague… three nights each. The first one was kind of lame, but the second was really awesome. If you’re backpacking through Europe and find yourself in Prague, I totally recommend the Art Hole hostel. Really chill vibe there, and definitely felt like someone’s home and not a hotel. I’ll be staying at places like this from now on. I met people to hangout with and aslo scored the bottom bunk, yet again…
The Couchsurfing community in Prague is good too. I found someone organizing a hike in the woods outside of town. I had to take one of the metro trains to the very last stop at the edge of Prague to reach the meeting point. The meetup that day was a good mix of other travelers, expats, and a few Czechs. The organizer took us on this hike which felt like we were in the middle of nowhere. It was a good, and then we finished the day at this brewery. More great Czech beer. I was glad I made it out of the city for at least one day. I got some exercise, met some interesting people, and made it to a Czech brewery way off the beaten trail.
Like I was saying, Prague ended up growing on me, and I’m really happy I stayed an extra few days. Some people complain about the volume of tourists, but there’s a reason for that. The city is crazy beautiful. Plus, all you really have to do is get out of the main squares if you’re looking for a more “authentic” experience. I’ve been to several European cities with old buildings, cobblestone streets, and old world charm, but Prague is the best in my book. I stayed in a cool hostel, met some fun people to hangout with, saw plenty of the city, and even managed to get out of town for a nice hike in the woods. The Czech beer is great, and fairly cheap if you don’t buy it in a tourist trap spot like the main square or restaurant on the castle grounds. I’m sure I’ll be back.