The Prague Skyline Panorama from atop the Astronomy Tower
The Prague Skyline Panorama from atop the Astronomy Tower

How many cities in the world rhyme with the word blog?

Combined with the trip to the German Christmas markets, we swung through the Czech Republic for a couple days to see what all the hullabaloo was about their capital city: Prague. It’s been on the top of my life for over 10 years for a few reasons. The first of which is that everybody who’s been there raves about it. I’ve spoken to friends, family, and even strangers on the interwebs who claim Prague is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.

Rightly so, considering it was one of the few major markets to avoid bombing during WWII. The Nazis marched across the border prior to their invasion of Poland – which was the inciting incident that brought the combined strength of Britain and France down upon the Third Reich. With the city heavily occupied by the Nazis, and so geographically close to the German stronghold of Munich, it’s easy to see why many of the beautiful architecture dating back to the Middle Ages survived.

Tyn's Church and the Astronomical Clock Tower from a Distance
Tyn’s Church and the Astronomical Clock Tower from a Distance

However, I must say that while I enjoyed my time in Prague, I was somewhat disappointed. Perhaps it was the level of expectations people set for me. Perhaps it was the weather. Perhaps the crowds (we happened to be there on a Czech specific holiday) stole some of the majesty away. These may have all been contributing factors, but I presume the real reason I wasn’t thrilled is simply due to the sheer amount of traveling I’ve done over the past few years. Many of the places I’ve seen around Asia and Africa just dwarf what Prague is and has been. It’s the way I choose to travel – more Indiana Jones than Anthony Bourdain.

I guess what I most wanted to experience was that Old World feel of being in another place and time. I wanted to step out of the 21st century and into the central square and winding back streets of Prague to feel like I had been transported to the 16oos. If you’ve seen The Illusionist (mostly shot in the Czech Republic) you’ll understand a bit of what I mean. However, the massive amount of traffic – both pedestrian and automotive – didn’t help to get the job done. On top of that, there are hundreds of old buildings, yet their first floor storefronts have become GAPs, ZARAs, and other high end clothing and jewelry stores. That certainly takes away from the ambience.

Of all the activities we did, the one that made me feel the most like traveling back in time was a tour of the Clementinum: a series of buildings that now houses the national library, among other things. In the past, it was where Kepler and Brahe did a lot of their work high above in their astronomy tower. That was where we were able to view the amazingly preserved Baroque Library, as well as gaze out over the entire city. The view of the church steeples and Medieval and Renaissance roofs was astounding.

The Charles Bridge with Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral Behind
The Charles Bridge with Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral Behind

We also crossed the Charles Bridge a few times, back and forth to the old town square, or Staromestske Namesti – which is home to both the Astronomical Clock (fantastic) and the famously haunting Tyn’s Church that dominates the skyline. The bridge crosses the Vltava River, is over 600 meters long and over 10 meters wide. It dates back to the 14th century and is considered to be one of the most astonishing gothic style bridges in the world, decorated with over 30 statues (mostly of Christian iconography). It’s beautiful for sure, when you’re not crammed shoulder to shoulder with people trying to cross. It ended up feeling more like a through-way than an actual sight to go and see for itself.

Likewise, the old town square was so full of people, it became difficult to move. I’ll even go so far as to say it reminded me of being in China. Yep, it was that bad. The church was cool from the outside, but overly decorated and gaudy from the inside. The clock was perhaps the best part, though with so many people there, it became difficult to soak it in and enjoy it fully.

Prague's Astronomical Clock
Prague’s Astronomical Clock

The clock was finished in 1410 and is the third oldest (and only still operational) astronomical clock in the world. The dial is an astrolabe, a medieval device used for star mapping. The clock face also boasts a zodiac ring. Normally, the center of the square is empty. Except we happened to be there during Advent and like their German neighbor, Prague boasts its own version of the Christmas market.

The fully lit tree was a nice touch, as was the stage (off to the side) where groups of children’s choirs would perform one after the other. And on December 5th, Mikulas makes an appearance. The Czech version of Santa is slightly different from our own. He appears with two followers: an angel and a devil, also known as the Krampus. If the child has been bad over the year, the devil kidnaps him (or her) and tosses them in his sack to bring straight to hell. However, the angel pleads to Mikulas on the child’s behalf, to save him from damnation. Mikulas then asks the child to recite a song or a poem and if he can, then he’s freed from the devil’s sack and given a treat. If he can’t, it’s said that there’s nothing else to be done but wave goodbye as the cackling krampus departs.

Staromestske Namesti (Old Town Square)
Staromestske Namesti (Old Town Square)

Quite a bit scarier than getting a lump of coal in your stocking. Don’t you think?

So our trip was fun and delightful overall. I wish that I had felt more of the magic Prague has to offer. I suppose that’s the risk when one’s traveled to Kathmandu, Kyoto, and Cairo.

Prospero Año Nuevo…

-Justin

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