Prague Odds and Ends

Seems like there are always a few photos that slip through the cracks. Just snapshots taken while walking around that don’t seem to fit into any of the other blog posts or from small moments that don’t really need a post of their own. I’m going to share a few of those.

I remember being a little nervous about using the public transport in Prague because I wasn’t familiar with the language. I had taken French in high school and college and felt fairly familiar with German signs, at least, after living in Austria for 6 months. But Czech was completely unfamiliar. And, as we know from the finding-the-apartment-incident and the going-to-the-Old-Jewish-Cemetery-incident where I misdirected us, it was a little more challenging than in other cities. But that was mostly the trams. They don’t have easy-to-read signs like the subway. And also, the subway was pretty modern and nice.

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Too bad the main line was down for most of our time there. It made it a little tricky to get back to the train station the next morning, but there was a friendly worker who helped give us directions. And then I did get approached by ticket agent on the tram asking to see my ticket while we were on the way to the train station. Luckily our 24-hour pass was valid for another 10 whole minutes.

Have I mentioned how pretty Prague is? Seriously, every building is covered in incredible details. I eventually stopped taking photos of the details because I would have had to take photos of literally everything. But here are a few lovely ones.

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And remember those awesome sidewalks?

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The real benefit of waking up extra early to go for a walk along the Charles Bridge became obvious when we passed by it around 3 in the afternoon. It’s hard to tell from this photo, but it was completely packed.

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For dinner that night, we wanted to try a place called Loving Hut. Before you get the wrong idea, it’s actually a vegan chain restaurant. We discovered it was in a mall. So yes, we ate dinner at a food court on our last night in Prague. It seems mundane, but it was actually really fun to go to a mall in a different country. We shopped for books and CDs (and picked up the cheapest compilation we could find for the next leg of our journey – driving on the Romantic Road). And you know, the stir-fry and sushi we got at Loving Hut was one of the best meals I had during the trip. It was so refreshing to have lots of fresh veggies.

When Cristen was looking for vegetarian restaurants, she happened to notice something called the John Lennon Wall on Google maps. Of course we had to check it out. According to Wikipedia, young Czechs would “write grievances on the wall” to express their “youth ideals such as love and peace.”

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Then we got some hot chocolate and went for another walk along the Charles Bridge.

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Prague Castle

After the Old Jewish Cemetery and a little bit of wandering and shopping, we took the tram up to Prague Castle. Even though I had read about Prague Castle before the trip, it wasn’t at all what I expected. In fact, I think I had this idea before I went to Prague that Tyn Cathedral was actually Prague Castle. They are in completely different locations. Prague Castle is actually a complex of different buildings, including Saint Vitus Cathedral, the Basilica of Saint George, and several old palaces. You can choose to go on a long visit (including pretty much everything) or a short visit (including just the highlights). We opted for the short visit, since it was already late in the afternoon.

But first we had to get there. I had read that it was a beautiful walk down to the cathedral, so we took the tram one stop up and walked in. It allowed us to see some of the amazing buildings nearby (and to grab some lunch first).

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(Remember how I said the sidewalks had all different patterns? There are a few on display in this post.)

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We happened to arrive at the castle at the changing of the guards. You could tell because there was a huge crowd. Of course.

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I am a believer in being a tourist. But I also got kind of tired of tourists (even though I was one, too), and I’ll tell you why. People like this guy.

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Obviously everyone was trying to get pictures/video of the changing of the guard. You can see that everyone is crowded around doing it. And what does that guy do? He stands right in the middle of everyone’s view. In fact, he was so in the way and wouldn’t move when the guards were coming out that they had to physically move him aside. That’s why people hate tourists, and I left Europe determined not to be that kind of tourist.

Let’s get back to how awesome the changing of the guard was.

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I’m a sucker for pomp and circumstance and tradition. And those booths they stand in are pretty great, too.

Once inside the Prague Castle complex, we went straight to Saint Vitus Cathedral. I have already visited a few cathedrals on this trip, and it seems like I liked each one better than the last. And that might be true with Saint Vitus. The stained glass was so vibrant.

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It’s the kind of building that can’t help but inspire awe and reverence. Unless you’re these kids.

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We walked through the old palace (no photos allowed in there and it was basically the main room) and then went to the Basilica of Saint George, which is quite a different kind of structure than the cathedral, but no less impressive.

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I was really excited about the Golden Lane because it looked so quaint and charming. It wasn’t quite what I expected, but most disappointingly, it was really shady and crowded and hard to take pictures. And I hate to admit it, but my enjoyment of a place is highly correlated to my ability to take photos there.

So we just went outside. Lots of people were gathered around, and apparently there is a boy scout equivalent in Czech.

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Either that or this troop has the best field trips ever!

There was an incredible view of the city from up at the castle. It was the perfect place to linger for a while and just enjoy the scenery, the weather, the joy of being somewhere amazing.

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And then we walked down the stairs through the Prague Castle Gardens. Mostly we did this out of laziness because I didn’t want to have to walk all the way back up to the castle entrance. There is a separate fee to walk through the gardens. It’s not very much, but we had minimal cash with us. Luckily I was able to scrape together the entrance fee, but I had to dig into my foreign coin reserves to do it (I always try to save a sample of coins from different countries). I think it was worth it, and in fact, I wish we had taken more time walking through it.

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Old Jewish Cemetery, Prague

I believe my love of cemeteries has been very well documented, so you can imagine that when I first saw photos of the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague, it quickly topped the list of places I wanted to see. After walking across the bridge, it was a short walk to the cemetery. If you know where you’re going, that is. I, however, didn’t realize we were so close, and we hopped on the nearest tram to ride up one stop. We ended up crossing the bridge and heading up a hill before we were able to get off and turn back around. But you know, I kind of like getting lost because we ended up seeing a different part of the city than we otherwise would have. We stopped into a bakery for some breakfast, and it was super cheap, but we ended up being disappointed with our choices.

We backtracked to the cemetery (turns out, the stop where we hopped on the tram was actually the stop for the cemetery) and looked around for the entrance. It wasn’t immediately noticeable, but we found two windows – one for tickets and one for the entrance. The ticket window looked unoccupied, so we went directly to the entrance. We asked for tickets and were told, “Kasse! Kasse!” So we walked back over to the ticket window, only to discover that we didn’t have quite enough cash (and of course, they didn’t take a card… the entrance was only about $2.50 anyway). So we went in search of an ATM and passed a bakery with such delicious looking food that we had to stop in. I was glad we found something else because I hate wasting an opportunity for good pastry.

On our third try, we finally gained entrance to the cemetery. First, we walked through the Pinkas Synagogue, which is a memorial to the 80,000 Jews in Bavaria who were killed during the holocaust. When I first read the number of those killed, I am a little embarrassed to say that 80,000 didn’t seem like that much when you often hear about hundreds of thousands or millions. But then we walked inside. In the memorial, the name of each person is engraved on the walls. And every inch of the synagogue is covered in names. It was incredibly moving and overwhelming to recognize what the number 80,000 actually means. It’s a sobering realization.

We walked through the synagogue into the cemetery. It was established in the 15th Century and contains about 12,000 tombstones. Although, there are considerably more people buried there.

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We were curious about why the tombstones are so close together, so Cristen did some internetting and discovered that when they ran out of room for graves, they would essentially create a new layer by adding soil on top of the existing graves. According to Jewish custom, they cannot remove the tombstones, so they would just raise the tombstone up to the new layer, so that’s why they are crowded together like that. Normally when I visit cemeteries, I like to read the names and dates on the stones and think about the people. I find it fascinating to imagine their lives based off the sentiments engraved. That wasn’t really possible at the Old Jewish Cemetery because I couldn’t read any of the tombs, but it was still interesting to think about the people buried there. It’s amazing that the cemetery is over 600 years old. It kind of boggles the mind.

A walk along the Charles Bridge

As I mentioned, the best piece of advice a friend gave me for my trip was to get up early and walk across the Charles Bridge. I assumed it was because she knew I would want to see it in the morning light, and perhaps that was it, but the real benefit became clear as soon as we left our apartment around 7 in the morning. No one else was around. The streets were almost empty. It was glorious! And it was the perfect way to see one of Prague’s most famous landmarks. I’m just going to let the photos do the talking.

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First day in Prague

We weren’t planning on going to Prague. Well, actually, we were planning to go to Prague, but then we realized we had way too much on our agenda and regretfully cut it out. The plan was to spend those couple of days in Munich, and we were thrilled when we realized that our trip coincided with Oktoberfest. Now, you may wonder why a Mormon who doesn’t drink beer would be excited about Oktoberfest. Lederhosen! No, seriously, I may not drink, but I love festivals! I usually shy away from big crowds, but after experiencing the magic of Mardi Gras, I knew Oktoberfest would be worth it.

Then we tried to book a place to stay. It was near impossible to find anything and what we could find was three times more expensive than we wanted to pay. It was hard to say good-bye to Munich after anticipating it for so long, but adding Prague back to the agenda eased the pain. Oh Prague… I don’t even know how to describe it, but I fell in love with the city. I think it was the light on the rooftops. Or how every building was so rich with detail. It may also have been the pork schnitzel (but not the goulash, which was a little disappointing).

But I’m probably getting ahead of myself here. I may have been predisposed to love Prague because the train ride between Dresden and Prague was beautiful. I kept trying to capture it, but only ended up with the blur of colorful buildings and changing leaves.

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We had rented an apartment with airbnb, and our host gave us excellent directions. I, however, got us on the wrong tram. I promise that I’m usually very good with directions, but I had a few flubs on this trip and this was one of the major ones. We ended up quite far from our apartment and quite turned around. But we eventually made it. The apartment was great! It was just steps away from the St. Charles Bridge and St. Nicholas Church. It was only 31 steps up and had a large bathroom (these things are very important). We dropped off our stuff and headed out to explore.

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One of the things that I loved about Prague were the sidewalks. Yes, even the sidewalks were beautiful there. They were made of black and white square stones and each of them had a different design. I wish that I had made it a point to take photos of each design because I was amazed at the variation. But if you look close at the photos, I inadvertently captured some of the designs.

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We were on our way to find some lunch, but we came across a door to a secret garden.

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It ended up being the Wallenstein Palace Gardens full of peacocks and fountains.

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After lunch, we went to the Mucha Museum. Alphonse Mucha was an Art Nouveau artist that you will probably recognize. The Mucha Museum is an unassuming, small space full of his work. Photos weren’t allowed inside, but just to give you an idea of his work:

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Beautiful, right? Just imagine a whole museum full of similar works. But even better, you can see a whole building he designed just down the street in the 1912 Municipal Building.

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And, if Prague hasn’t won you over yet, they were giving out free little cans of Coke.

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We continued walking in search of a vintage shop called Bric-a-Brac that I had read about and eventually found it. It was very small.

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A couple was inside when we got there and we had to do that awkward dance around each other to try and squeeze past shelves of pocket watches and tin cans and pipes and buttons and dolls. Unfortunately, it was kind of a spendy vintage shop, so I didn’t pick up any souvenirs. We also stopped in lots of stores selling marionettes and wooden toys. I had hoped to find a marionette, but they were actually kind of creepy and scary.

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And then we stumbled upon Old Town Square. It was one of those moments where Cristen and I just looked at each other, and then we maybe went a little crazy with taking photos. We were so caught up in it that we actually lost track of each other for a while.

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It was easy to get lose track of each other because the square was crowded. Most people were gathered around one feature in particular.

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What could possibly attract so much attention? How about a clock? I almost felt bad taking this photo of it because I had to stand in front of everyone.

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I know I’ve already complained about crowds a few times, but Prague actually felt more crowded than the other cities. I think it’s because there are a few sites that all the tourists just flock to. And why not? When you’re in Prague, of course you want to see Old Town Square and the astronomical clock and Charles Bridge, etc. But you know, the crowds just start to wear on you after a while. I found myself daydreaming about what it would be like to wander the city all by myself. After Cristen and I found each other again, we decided to ditch the crowds and take the tram to see Frank Gehry’s dancing buildings.

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Followed by a walk across the Vltava River.

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We picked one of the many outdoor cafes for dinner and that’s when I had the most amazing pork schnitzel. Eating out in Prague is interesting because the waiters always set up a little table next to yours with all of your condiments. I found it quite convenient. A couple across the cafe apparently ordered the big sampler because the waiter brought out a whole contraption for carving meat.

Before my trip, I asked friends for recommendations about what to see and do and places to eat. I got lots of great ones, but one piece of advice was to get up really early to walk across the Charles Bridge. We called it a night early, so we could take her advice. More of that later.

trip prep: point of interest cheat sheets

We just wound up two days in Prague. We planned to visit the Old Jewish Cemetery and explore some of the winding alleys and streets. Maybe we climbed the steps up to the castle or watched a marionette show.

I’m the type of traveler who does tons of research before I leave. I like to figure out all of the points of interest that I could possibly see, even though I know it’s unlikely I will have time to see them all. But if I can gather all of the information, then I can make informed decisions about how to spend my time. I don’t usually schedule my days because I like to remain flexible. I know there are a lot of variables when you travel – weather, moods, health, and energy level. So if I have all of the options ready beforehand, I can easily select something that sounds appealing.

For this trip, I created cheat sheets for each city. They’re basically just a Word doc with a table. I wrote down what I wanted to see, directions to the place (mostly the nearest public transportation stop), hours, and the admission fee.

I also wrote down notes about public transportation or visitor passes. I almost always get a day pass for public transportation on all of my trips. I like feeling completely free to take the subway/tube/metro/etc. as needed. I think this is because of my first trip to London. It was at the very end of a 10-day trip over our Christmas break when I was studying in Austria. It was raining and cold, and I was exhausted. I had no money, but I was just too tired to make it back to our hostel. I decided to take the tube. And overdrew my bank account. Anyway, I always like to find out what transportation options are available.

I’d be happy to share my research. If you’re planning to visit London, Paris, Hamburg, Berlin, Dresden, Prague, the Romantic Road, Nice, or Marseille, send me an email (katieelainearmstrong {at} gmail) and I’ll pass along my cheat sheets.