PRAGUE: What are you waiting for? Go already!
As alluded to in my previous post, I recently spent two weeks traveling with my parents during my school's fall break. The first city on our itinerary was Prague. I had seen enough pictures to expect a reasonably charming European capital with an Eastern European flair, but otherwise I hadn't done much research in advance of the trip. I trusted that my parents had done enough planning to know what we ought to see and do; my only job was to get myself there.
We spent three full days in Prague, and I can comfortably say after this brief stay that Prague is a phenomenal city that everyone should visit at some point. If you're looking for a city that still retains some of its old Soviet edge (which is something that I always find interesting), I think you'll be somewhat disappointed, as the city as a whole felt thoroughly westernized to me. Certainly, there are plenty of indications of its past in the form of museums and monuments, and many of the trams had a very eastern and "dated" look. But overall Prague felt to me like any other bustling European capital full of tourists (including a surprisingly high number of Americans). Still, if you're looking for a city full of beauty, charm and plenty of sights, you won't be disappointed.
To get to Prague, I took a train from Fulda to Nürnberg and then a bus from Nürnberg to Prague. The whole journey took about 5 1/2 hours. I arrived at the main train station in Prague, and, armed with a pre-downloaded map from the CityMaps2Go app (highly recommended, by the way), I found my way to the apartment we were renting for the trip, where my parents were waiting. I was able to find the location easy enough, but ran into a problem once I arrived -- all I knew was that the apartment was on the third floor, but the apartment listing outside the building gave no indication of the floors apartments were on, or even individual numbers. It was just a bunch of last names, and I had no idea which name I was looking for.
I couldn't call my parents because their phones would be turned off so as to avoid roaming charges, and I didn't want to use my cell data to contact them over the internet because that would be expensive. Right as I was calling my boyfriend to see if he would be able to contact my parents over the internet to let them know I was here, my dad decided to make a well-timed (but surely expensive) international call to see where I was. I quickly explained I was downstairs, and he came down to let me in. Crisis averted!
We spent the next three days trying to make the most of the time we had. We didn't go into any museums and in general did not do a lot of touring of locations -- there was more than enough to see and do from the streets. We would have needed two more days (at least) to throw activities like that into the mix. As it stands, I know there is so much more in Prague to see and do, but I think we got an excellent feel for the city. One thing we kept noting was how much beautiful architecture is spread through the city. It almost felt Paris-esque, in the sense that you feel like you can't make any wrong turns -- down every street there seemed to be something worth seeing, some exquisite example of classical architecture.
The first day we navigated from our base in New Town (Nové město) along the Vltava River up to the Charles Bridge. I was amazed at just how much activity was going on along the bridge. I had assumed it would just be hordes of tourists taking pictures, but in addition to that there were a plethora of musicians, street performers and vendors. It was a little crowded and overwhelming at times, but the liveliness of the bridge was also quite exciting. We crossed the bridge into the Lesser Town (Malá Strana), and explored a little bit, though we decided not to go too far since it was getting late. We stopped at the Lennon Wall on our way back. It started as an outlet for free speech among Czech youth in the 80s. Since the collapse of communism, it has continued to used as a spot for peace-inspired graffiti. The face of the wall changes nearly every day as new graffiti covers the old.
The next day we focused on seeing Prague's Old Town (Staré Město). The Old Town Square is probably one of Prague's best-known sights, and predictably it was packed with tourists. Still, there was a lot to see and do on and around the square. The buildings themselves were beautiful, many of them colorful and ornately designed. We arrived shortly before the top of the hour, so of course we had to stop and first watch the Astronomical Clock go through its motions as the hour changed. It's very much like the Glockenspiel in Munich, where you stand in a huge group of people to watch some little mechanical figures move around in a circle, and you're left feeling slightly stupid for having been another one of those tourists standing, gawking at the clock. The clock itself is very interesting to look at though, both with regard to its design and function. I still don't quite understand how everything works, but it's cool to see it still in working order given its age (just over 600 years old!).
From the Old Town Square we meandered toward Wenceslas Square (which is more of a boulevard). Traditionally this has been a place of significance for Czechs when it comes to celebrating or demonstrating. There were a number of food booths set up when we were there -- I'm not sure if that's a regular installation or if they were there for a specific reason. It looked sort of like a German Christmas market (though of course not nearly as adorable).
The weather began to take a turn for the worse, so we decided that would be a good time to visit some churches. We tried to go into the Týn Church, which bears the iconic towers you often see in pictures looming over the rest of the Old Town Square. Unfortunately, once we managed to find the entrance (not nearly as simple a task as you would have assumed), we found that the church was closed to visitors at that time. We settled for peering through the grates to catch some of the Baroque gaudiness within.
After that we stopped in the St. Nicholas Church (the one on the square; not to be confused with the St. Nicholas Cathedral in the Lesser Town). It wasn't especially remarkable as European churches go, but its chandeliers made the overall interior quite lovely.
The next day, our last proper day in Prague, we headed up toward the castle to see that part of town. Not feeling quite so intrepid as to walk up there, we took one of the tramlines up the hill. The area around the castle, despite being part of the "lesser" town, is no less charming that the rest of Prague -- lots of cute, colorful buildings as well as larger buildings with ornate facades. I am certain there are parts of Prague that look as dumpy as any American city, but we never stumbled on those parts and I continued to be amazed with the city's beauty.
We walked up to the castle, but weren't particularly interested in going inside. Instead, we walked along the perimeter into the castle gardens. This was a beautiful area to explore, both because of the gardens themselves and the views from them -- you could look out over Prague, seeing all of the bright red roofs with the occasional church spires poking out.
After exploring the castle gardens, we meandered down the hill back into the main Lesser Town, stopping to explore restaurants and gardens and just soak up the overall atmosphere. Our last major destination was Josefov, the Jewish Quarter. The main draw here is the chance to visit some of the historic synagogues in the area, but all of them charged entrance fees (some of them quite steep), and we decided we were content just walking around the area and seeing them from the outside.
During our time in Prague, we kept noticing objects being set up that didn't have a clear purpose -- an orb hanging from the Powder Tower on the Charles Bridge, a large cube standing in the middle of the Old Town Square, etc. Eventually we figured out that these were part of the Signal Festival, a sort of art/light/technology festival taking place throughout Prague. Basically, there were various displays set up throughout the city featuring creative and artistic uses of light and projection. The whole thing sounded really cool, especially when I saw this video of a video mapping piece they did on the Astronomical Clock for its 600th birthday. The same people who did that display were coming back to Prague to do a similar one on a church here, and I knew I definitely wanted to see that.
Our last night in Prague was the beginning of the festival, so we set out shortly after 7 p.m. so check out some of the displays. Unfortunately, we were quite underwhelmed with the displays we saw. Some weren't active at all (possibly due to weather -- it was a little windy, but not terrible) and others just weren't visually impressive. After taking the time to navigate to three or four different exhibits and finding ourselves disappointed each time, my parents decided they wanted to head back the apartment we were staying in, rather than walk farther to the other installations that might be just as disappointing as the ones we had already seen. I decided to stay out however -- I was unconvinced that we had seen the best the festival had to offer, and in particular I wanted to see the church video mapping display I mentioned in the previous paragraph.
So, I kept walking. I saw two additional pieces that were much more interesting than what he had seen before. One was an animated projection on a building wall called "Urban Void" that showed a variety of urban scenes mixed in with fantastical or otherwise jarring images that didn't necessarily fit, such as fish swimming through the streets. The other was a video mapping piece called "#DÉFILÉ" which explored the role and influence of the internet in the modern age. It was interesting, but a little boring as a video mapping project, since I don't think it made particularly creative use of the building onto which it was projected. Here is a video of it, if you are interested.
Finally, I made my way to the Church of St. Ludmila to see the video mapping display there -- an I'm so glad I did. The piece was incredible, with stunning visuals whose aim was the tell the story of the church as well as a pulsing, hypnotic soundtrack. It's amazing the kinds of illusions you can create with a carefully calibrated projection, such as the appearance that the church's rose window is pulsating or becoming a swirling black hole.
Below, you can see a video I took of the piece. The quality isn't the best (and you can probably find better versions linked to the side on YouTube), but it gives an idea what it all looked like:
I'm so happy I took the time to see this display -- it was a wonderful end to my time in Prague.
Overall, the entire trip was quite a surprise for me. I came in expecting to enjoy a new city, but not expecting to find a new favorite destination. Now every time someone talks about where they might want to visit next in Europe, I emphatically respond, "You HAVE to go to Prague!" I was absolutely blown away by its beauty and history, and I say unequivocally that people should hold it in as high regard as other European capitals like Paris or Rome.
My only regret from the trip is that in some regards, I feel like we only scratched the surface. We didn't have enough time to go ino any museums or dig into specific parts of Prague's history, such as its experience under communism (something that I am extremely interested in). We really would have needed about two extra days to dig into that aspect of the city (in addition to the three full days we spent there). Three days in an absolutely minimum for seeing Prague, but I think four or five would be ideal.
So what are you waiting for? Go to Prague already!