Tag Archives: Prague

Ticket to Ride

There’s something magical about trains. You don’t have to worry about ridiculous long security lines; you always have plenty of legroom; and they even have an entire car dedicated to feeding you. On a train, travel doesn’t happen in a vacuum-sealed chamber of screaming babies and persnickety passengers. Travel passes before your eyes—the patchwork of farms and pastures, the small town centers, the trees with their changing colors—so that your journey becomes more than a passage from point A to point B but instead a way to experience the country as you travel through it.

I said goodbye to my parents in Prague this morning to board EuroCity 171 to Budapest, where I was meeting my friends for the rest of the fall break. After a relaxing breakfast at the hotel, I arrived at the train station with my printed out ticket in hand.

IMG_2231

It turns out, my train was running a full 30 minutes late—a condition that wasn’t too much of an inconvenience but made me internally freak out as I convinced myself that I was reading the departure information wrong and the train most definitely left without me. But around 20 minutes after the scheduled departure time, they finally posted the platform number for my train and I practically ran to platform 3S in my antsy anticipation.

IMG_2234 IMG_2233

Shortly, my train arrived—an old hunk of steel called the Hungaria, with its faded red utilitarian exterior straight out of the 1960s. I was able to find a window seat in a row by itself, stretching out my feet on the chair directly across from me, with its unique combination of brown carpet and yellow pleather upholstering.

I quickly settled in for the 7-hour journey ahead, catching up on blog posts and tearing through chapters of my book. The train slowly made its way through the Czech Republic and into Brno, then entering Slovakia and passing through Bratislava. By the time we entered into Hungary, it was dark.

At this point, hardly anyone was left on the train, which made it eerily silent as the lights flickered overhead. Maybe it was because I was 6 hours into my ride—or maybe it was because it was suddenly dark outside—but the creepiness factor of the train increased suddenly. Repeatedly, the train kept stopping on the tracks for no apparent reason.

I was incredibly relieved when the train finally pulled into the Budapest-Keleti station, where I found a taxi and gave them the address to the apartment. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to find my friends since I was almost an hour late for our meeting time, but luckily Alex and Matt were still waiting outside.

I dropped off my stuff at the apartment, an entire two-bedroom flat that looks straight out of an Ikea catalog. I had found the place for super cheap through Airbnb, which connects owners to short-term tenants.

We went out to dinner at a Hungarian restaurant nearby (which honestly isn’t too different from Czech cuisine), before heading back to the flat to get ready to see all of Budapest in a day. Bring it!

Through the streets of Český Krumlov

As we drove through the Czech countryside from Prague to Český Krumlov today, it seemed like every city we passed had began with the word “Český” as part of its name. Perhaps it means “city”? “Ah, no,” replied Pavel when my dad asked. “They just thought the name of those cities sounded too German so they added the word ‘Czech’ or ‘Český’ to the front to make it sound more Czech.”

And so, we woke up early this morning to drive to Český “Czech” Krumlov, a small city about two hours outside of Prague. Because of its well-preserved village and incredibly expansive castle, today the city is further protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Our drive took us through the foggy hills of the Czech countryside—at some points, the fog was so thick that one couldn’t see more than several meters on each side of the road. We stopped for a pit stop at České Budêjovice, which had a huge cobblestoned city square.

When we arrived at Český Krumlov, our first stop took us through the expansive gardens of the castle—past fountains, numerous garden beds, and even an indoor heated riding arena.

The castle itself is gigantic; within the Czech Republic it is second only to the Prague Castle. It dates back to 1240, when the powerful Rosenberg family built the first castle. Over the years, the castle was renovated and updated according to the latest style. To this day, most of the castle remains decorated in the opulence of the Renaissance area, with countless frescoes and lavish furnishings.

We had a chance to tour the castle (unfortunately, no cameras allowed!), and I couldn’t believe how huge and how well-preserved the castle remains today. I couldn’t imagine one family owning all of it!

Afterwards, we had lunch along the river and walked around through the city’s narrow, winding streets.

Once we got back, we had time to sit at one of the cafes in the Old Square then sit down to dinner.

Since my parents leave back for California tomorrow, I can’t say how wonderful and lucky I was to spend time with them, especially in such beautiful cities like Istanbul and Prague. I couldn’t believe how quickly the time passed before it was time to say goodbye to them once again. Skype and email and narcissistic blogs like this one are great ways to stay in touch, but nothing truly can replace the time you spend together.

What’s all the Praha-ha

We met up with Pavel again in the morning, for our second half of the walking tour around Prague. To begin, we took the metro and tram across the river to Lesser Town to visit the magnificent complex of the Prague Castle.

The Prague Castle sits on a hill overlooking the river, where it has served as the seat of the Kings of Bohemia, Holy Roman Emperors, and the presidents of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic. It holds the Guinness World Record as the largest ancient castle in the world, occupying an area of almost 70,000 square meters.

IMG_5302

 

IMG_5372

The castle dates back to the 9th century, where the first walled building was the Church of the Virgin Mary. At the beginning of the 10th century, the rulers began work on the Basilica of St. Vitus, a gigantic gothic church that remained under construction for centuries until it was finally finished some 600 years later. Look at those stained glass windows!

We also toured some rooms inside the castle itself––from the grand coronation room to the offices for the government scribes.

My mom’s favorite part was this row of little houses built into the castle walls––complete with a collection of torture devices (yikes!).

Afterwards, we walked around Lesser Town and visited the Lennon Wall.

Beginning in the 1980s, people began to cover the wall with all kinds of Beatles-inspired graffiti and song lyrics. Under the communist regime, the wall served as a source of irritation. Young Czechs began writing grievances on the wall. Multiple times the wall was painted over, only to be covered again with flowers and lyrics by the next night.

IMG_5454

After the tour with Pavel, we had lunch as we decided what to do for the rest of the afternoon. First stop: the Communist museum!

IMG_5473

The Communist Museum of Prague had a somewhat creepy collection of old artifacts and mannequins, depicting life in Prague during the Communist era. When we had asked Pavel what life was like before the fall of the Communists, he always told us the same thing: “Gray. Everything was gray.” It was fascinating to contrast the photos of drab, ramshackle streets with the beautiful facades of Prague today.

My favorite part of the video was an old documentary that depicted the protests that erupted in Wencelas Square in 1989. Crowds numbering thousands, strong-willed protesters, police brutality… yet all of this underscored by the remarkable success of the subsequent regime change, all with no violence or lives lost.

We also visited the Spanish Synagogue, with its arched ceilings covered with tiny, intricate geometric designs. The synagogue also had a remarkable collection of Jewish artifacts from all over Central Europe. When the Nazis gained control of the synagogue, they had kept a staff working at the museum charged with the task to create three private exhibitions to document many of the Jewish artifacts seized from the territories under Nazi control. All of the museum staff was eventually sent to Auschwitz.

1346503293_a9111ff5f3_z

We had dinner at an Italian restaurant near Old Square, and we then went to the top of the clock tower after dinner to have a view of the city at night.

What a sight!

Czech It Out

After two packed days in Istanbul, my parents and I woke up early this morning to catch a flight to Prague, the largest city and capital of the Czech Republic. Our flight went smoothly, and we arrived in Prague just before noon with a new stamp in our passports.

IMG_5094

Immediately, you could feel the change from the chaos and bustle of Istanbul. While Prague is a large city in its own right, its population of 1.3 million people pale in comparison to Istanbul’s 13 million plus. Its narrow cobblestoned maze of one-way streets keeps most of the cars out of the city center.

IMG_5100

We had lunch at an Italian restaurant just off the Old Town Square—where I scarfed down an entire pizza more as a testament to my gratitude to eat something besides Turkish food than to the quality of the pizza—before meeting up with our guide, Pavel, for an afternoon walking tour of Old Town, New Town, and Josefov.

The four hours that followed took us through a leisurely stroll through the streets of Prague. Repeatedly, I was amazed at the beauty of the architecture of the buildings—a testament to the many centuries of immense wealth and power invested in Prague throughout the centuries. While today it serves as the capital of the Czech state, it has also been the seat of two Holy Roman Empires, the historical capital of Bohemia proper, the capital of Czechoslovakia, and an important city to the Habsburg Monarchy and its Austro-Hungarian Empire.

We began our tour in Old Town Square, slowly wandering over to Wenceslas Square. Wenceslas Square played a significant role as the site of many protests leading up to the Velvet Revolution and subsequent fall of communism in Czechoslovakia.

We then traveled over to one of the most recognizable panoramas in Prague—the view from Charles Bridge, which spans over the Vltava River. The construction of the bridge started in 1357, and served as the only means of crossing the river until 1841. As a result, this crossing helped make Prague important as a trade route between Eastern and Western Europe.

We finished our tour in Josefov, which historically served as the Jewish district of Prague. There still stands a remarkable vaulted gothic synagogue known as the Straronová Synagoga (literally “Old New Synagogue”) that dates back to 1270.

And sometimes, there’s truly no better way to explore a city than on your two feet.

Back in Old Square!

Back in Old Square!