What an absolutely enjoyable two weeks we spent together, Winter Prague.
Why, thank you, random tourist, I’m glad you enjoyed us.
Please, call me Dean.
I’d rather not.
Well, up to you, but I hope you don’t mind if I call you Praha, now that we’ve gotten to know each other and all.
Do you speak Czech?
Then you should probably stick with Prague.
Anyway, I just wanted to say how much we liked wandering around – the beautiful Old Town Square, Charles Bridge, Prague Castle, the Christmas markets, basically anywhere along Vltava River.
Yes, we feel our variety is one of our major strengths. Variety and pork knuckle.
Yeah, we tried that, too. Top notch. Just a whole lot of pork, like, so much. And then a big, satisfying bone left at the end to show everyone just what you’ve been up to. We also noticed you have a lot more parks than we expected.
Very perceptive of you. We did that so all our many, many dog owners would have a place for their pets to shit.
Yes, feces was a hazard at times, but at least most of the dogs were all decked out in festive winter sweaters and fuzzy jackets.
Indeed, we boast some of the best-dressed dogs in the entire former Communist bloc. Miles better than the Slovaks.
I’ll say. Anyway, now that we’ve gone we just wanted to tell you how great everything was, and how impressed we were by how much beer Czechs drink. I mean, stopping-the-heart levels.
Yes, it is certainly our method of choice when it comes to drowning sorrows and numbing emotional pain. Wine is for people who wash their car for fun, and the French.
Two Weeks in Prague
It didn’t take long for us to see that what we thought were sizeable crowds in little Cesky Krumlov were nought but a pimple on the arse of the visiting hordes in Prague. The mass of humanity seething to and fro at the base of famous Charles Bridge alone probably outnumbered Cesky’s several Asian tour groups and handful of handholding couples tiptoeing uncertainly through their first weekend away together. And this was in late November. I dare not imagine what mid-summer may look like around these parts.
Nonetheless, Prague is so chock-full of great sights and fascinating locations that once we were done with the biggest draws, all of us gawkers easily managed to disperse throughout the city.
Riveting political note: earlier this year the Czech government officially coined a new short form name for the country in the hopes of upping the relatively young nation’s cool quotient and making it more attractive to t-shirt designers and two-finger typists. Unfortunately, so far “Czechia” has been no one’s idea of “hip” or “trendy”, although many have described it as “confusing” and “dumb”.
Although we eventually spent two full weeks in a rented apartment as a bit of a decompression stop before flying home for Christmas last week, we also had an abbreviated one night stay earlier in November to meet up with a travelling friend, Melinda, who we were originally going to visit on a weekend trip to Berlin, but those plans were scrapped when it turned out she was going to be in Prague anyway. We met Melinda while hiking the Camino de Santiago and have since met up with in England, New Zealand and, now Czechia (see how handy that is?). She works as a tour guide around Europe and was gracious enough to give us her “Prague – Short and Boozy” version, wandering a few highlights, a couple lesser knowns (the hanging statue of Sigmund Freud, the psychedelic book stack at Prague library), a couple of beer joints, some pickled cheese (probably not a future staple of my diet). All told, a good visit, if short, and with none of the forced joviality of a normal tour, or sharing a small vehicle with elderly Australians experimenting with foreign foods.
After Melinda moved on with her group we spent the weekend in Olomouc, as I discussed in my last blog entry, then returned to the capital ready to take on Prague’s long list of attractions with vim and vigour. Actually, mostly just vim; with a full two weeks to spare there was no need to waste all our vigour right off the hop.
For us, everything in Prague – and most other scenic cities, including Saskatoon – starts with the river. The Vltava in this case, snaking its way through the city past picturesque old bridges, stunning architecture and cute little islands. Most days we chose a new destination, took some combination of tram/metro/bus to get there, then roughly mapped out some meandering walking route that would include some portion of the river, take us no more than a couple hours (typically our limit walking around in single digit sub-zero temperatures despite Laynni’s extravagant new toque and my awkwardly trendy new scarf) and eventually end either back at our apartment or somewhere neatly connected by more public transport.
The aforementioned Charles Bridge is amazing from every angle, then there is Prague Castle, Petrin Tower, Shooter Island, Old Town Square, Jewish Town, and the John Lennon graffiti wall. Large flocks of swans and (less exciting) ducks line the river bank in hopes of being chosen as extras in the next Swans of Prague Standard Wedding Photo. We learned from Melinda that the reason most of the stone sculptures lining the Charles Bridge are nearly black is not due to any dark symbolism or artistic cleverness but actually just the result of too much coal dust in the air.
General Prague Life
While there is no question that Prague is full of highlight attractions, for us the best part was just settling in, renting an apartment and sticking around long enough to explore the place in a leisurely – some might say haphazard – fashion. Nonetheless, after three months on the road you weren’t hearing any complaints from us about a full two week stretch that didn’t involve a single long travel day, or being reduced to washing underwear in a sink.
We were staying in the Vinohrady neighbourhood – a nice residential area, seemingly pretty affluent, full of nice buildings, good restaurants and several spacious parks constantly full of people walking small dogs in decorative winter sweaters. The main street nearby, Ruska, was lined with amazing mansions, some of the only stand-alone houses we saw anywhere in Prague and, presumably, worth more than the entire country’s meagre wine collection. Our apartment was awesome, checking off all our most essential items: kitchen, comfortable couch, washing machine, effective heating, fast wifi, and a TV featuring a wide selection of campy variety shows and 80’s rock channels.
More Travel Friends
One of the reasons we chose an extended stay in Prague was the fact we had a couple friends living there who we had originally met – and eventually got stupid drunk with – on our Tao Expeditions boat trip in the Philippines in 2015. Not long after our arrival, Costa (Australian by way of Greece) and Renata (Czech recently moved back from Australia) lured us into a dark medieval dungeon where we gorged on hearty Czech beer and massive, alarming hanks of pork. That dramatic opener was followed up with a more local beer joints, several impressive Czech restaurants, a brewery tour escorted by a pair of unsteady men in seedy, dishevelled goat costumes, a leisurely morning hike through the frosty Czech countryside to an amazing lookout point then a successful hunter happy to take a break from field dressing seven steaming wild boar carcasses to pass out local hiking info, a trip to rural Sternberk Castle where Costa lost a glove and, possibly as a result, didn’t use the bathroom the rest of the day, a disturbing Bone Church and impressive cathedral in Renata’s hometown of Kutna Hora, one Jason Bateman movie, a day of Christmas baking and kangaroo testicles and Poison’s “Talk Dirty to Me”, all building to the thrilling climax of an epic final Sunday hangover. Comprehensive.
The Czech people, explained
They are passionate to the point of fanatic about their beer, an endearing quality to someone like me.
They love their dogs, and seem to consider pet ownership a virtual requirement.
They are generally pretty reserved, quiet in public, rarely seen talking on cell phones, yet quick to smile and eager to laugh at foreigners woefully mispronouncing the simplest of Czech words.
They are admirably willing to give up their seats to the elderly or infirm, to the point that an entire crowded tram standing shoulder-to-shoulder might completely ignore empty seats, just to save the hassle of having to get right back up. Or maybe because they ride that route all the time and have seen things take place on that particular seat that can never be unseen.
Food and Drink
We were surprisingly impressed with our Czech culinary experience, from the aforementioned and ubiquitous “pork knuckle”, to tender “beef cheeks”, a variety of fried cheeses, potato and bread dumplings, sumptuous beef goulash, Christmas market stall concoctions of sausage, potato and cabbage, and that one glorious frankfurter. And, of course, we made pasta at home and visited Thai and Vietnamese restaurants regularly, much as we do everywhere in the world.
We aren’t typically very interested in art outside the obvious choices (the Louvre, Valparaiso street graffiti, Greek penises), at least not as far as touring galleries and things like that, but with more time than usual on our hands in Prague we decided to work our way through a tour of all the subversive politically-themed David Cerny sculptures scattered around the city. Subtlety may not be his strong suit, but he certainly knows what constitutes a funny photo op.
For the most part the Czechs celebrate Christmas in a similar manner to Canada (and by Canada I mean the people in my immediate social circle in a very specific portion of one of the least-populated provinces in the country) – trees, lights, commercialistic brainwashing and an excuse to drink alcohol anywhere, anytime. But there are a few differences that caught our attention. For one, the famous Christmas markets that pop up in every square or public space as the big date draws ever nearer. These consist mainly of large groupings of wooden shacks selling everything from beer, wine, “punc” and “grog” to a variety of food (basically everything I mentioned earlier, with seeming emphasis on cabbage-based specialties) to an even greater variety of Christmas-y trinkets, gifts and decorations, usually following a sparkly, overpriced theme. And with a slightly milder climate, a surprising amount of people seem perfectly willing to do their drinking outside among the elements, despite a huge selection of indoor pubs and, precluding the homeless, homes. Generally they stand in small clusters near tall wooden tables that allow them to periodically set their drinks down and energetically rub their hands together as though those three seconds of activity will somehow turn this heavily-flawed concept into a winning combination of getting drunk and shivering. Full marks for commitment, though.
They also have a slightly different take on the whole mistletoe thing. Whereas we treat it as a symbol of love that requires those beneath it to kiss – or more, in the case of clever Christmas-themed pornography – in the Czech Republic the mistletoe is painted gold (and sometimes other colours, although I’m not sure how that plays in) and the idea is that a couple must kiss under it to ensure that “the woman doesn’t dry out throughout the year”. So it’s not so much a quaint tradition as a prudent health precaution. And, without boring you with unnecessary detail, let’s just say Laynni should find 2017 plenty damp.
Then there is St. Nicholas Day Eve which, besides being a handful to say, centres around a tradition whereby St. Nick and an Angel team up rather surprisingly with the Devil, the three of them spending a pleasant evening walking around the city confronting children to determine if they have been good or bad this year. If the children say yes, they must then sing a song or recite a poem. If this proves satisfactory, the Angel gives them candy and treats. If they foolishly opt for full disclosure and admit they’ve been bad, or tank the whole song and poem routine, then the Angel wants nothing to do with them and passes them off to the Devil who – best-case scenario – fills the child’s bag with coal or potatoes. Worst-case scenario, on the other hand, if they’ve caught the Devil on a bad day – bickering with his latest concubine, maybe, or annoyed by overcrowding and general shittiness in the dedicated American Congress wing of Hell – he may decide to make an example and stuff the offending child in his sack to be whisked off to Hell. I don’t know exactly how often this happens, but a telling number of parents seem willing to take that chance.
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