Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Prague: A Modern Medieval City

Now it's time to talk about the second destination of my week-long excursion with my study abroad program: Prague, Czech Republic! If you want to read the first half of my trip to Nuremberg, Germany, you can find the post here.

I've never been to Eastern Europe before, so I was excited to visit the Czech Republic. For years, I've heard that Prague is supposed to be one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, full of original medieval buildings that weren't destroyed in the world wars. The popular tourist destination definitely didn't disappoint.

My study abroad program took a five-hour train ride into Prague after spending four days in Nuremberg. The bits of the Czech Republic that I saw out of the train window looked exactly like how I pictured Eastern Europe. Cute little houses in need of maintenance were stacked together in tiny, broken-down towns set against vast fields and a few mountain ranges. The site was entirely different than what I've seen of Germany in Central Europe, but still pretty nonetheless. When we arrived in Prague, we had to lug our suitcases uphill for 30 minutes to our hotel, since the study abroad coordinators thought that squeezing 75 kids with luggage onto public transportation wasn't the smartest idea. My first glimpse of Prague, therefore, was seen with a sore back and sweaty forehead.

After we dropped off our bags in the beautiful, palace-like hotel, my friends and I got to explore Prague without the burden of suitcases. I couldn't stop my jaw from dropping – the city was even more beautiful that I'd imagined. Perfectly preserved medieval buildings lined the crooked cobblestone sidewalks. Architecture from the Gothic,  Renaissance, Baroque, Communist and even Cubist periods was sprinkled throughout the old city as well, leading to a stunning mixture of Europe's historical past. My favorite site was the Prague Castle, which was perched on a mountain across the river separating the "old" part of Prague to relatively "newer" part (which is still hundreds of years old).

That night, we went to a traditional Czech restaurant to test out the food. Apparently Czech cuisine consists of meat, cheese, and bread, which I'm definitely not opposed too. I ordered a typical Czech dish of beef goulash with bread dumplings and a beer. I also learned that the most popular Czech street food is a fried cheese sandwich, which is basically a large mozzarella stick covered with sauces and stuck between two pieces of bread. I can't stress how amazing (and fattening!) this sandwich is for a cheese-lover like myself.

Since the Czech Republic doesn't use Euros, we had to exchange our currency for the Czech Koruna (crowns). The exchange rate is insane – 100 koruna is the equivalent of around 3.50 Euros, or around $4.50 in U.S. dollars. I turned in 105 Euros and got 2,900 Koruna in return. I felt like I won the lottery carrying around the Koruna bills in my wallet!

The next day, my study abroad program had a guided tour of the city center. I found the tour extremely interesting since the guide gave meaning to all of the pretty buildings, making me appreciate the city even more. We saw cathedrals and houses from the 1300s and 1400s, which blew my mind. Even the oldest buildings in America aren't that old. Part of the tour centered on Prague's historic Jewish quarter, where we saw beautiful synagogues and the Old Jewish Cemetery.

My favorite site was the medieval astrological clock which dates back to 1410. The clock has three time-telling parts: an astronomical dial which tells the position of the sun and the moon, a calendar dial showing the month, and a dial showing the time. Every hour, figures of the Apostles emerge from the clock. (Info from here)

My friends and I paid a few Euro to go to the top of clock tower in the Old Town City Hall, and I'm so glad we did. The views of the city were vast and absolutely stunning. As we were gazing at the ancient buildings, we suddenly heard screaming and chanting below us. Startled, we looked down to see a few hundred sports fans screaming and chanting through the center of Prague with police escorts. The situation seemed very ironic – I was seeing modern-day sports fans marching between buildings dating back a few hundred years. I guess that's the glory of Europe.

My study abroad group also toured the ancient Prague Castle, which has ties to Bohemia and the Holy Roman Empire. The Thirty Years War actually started in this castle, when a group of Protestants threw three Catholics out of a castle window. As the story goes, the men survived by falling into a pile of manure (one of the random facts that I remember from AP European History). Today, the Prague Castle is the home of the president of the Czech Republic. Since the Prague Castle is mounted on a hill, the views of the city are amazing! I couldn't stop snapping photos of the scenery. The church on the castle grounds was also amazing.

My favorite part of the castle was probably Golden Lane, a collection of 11 tiny houses in the Prague Castle vicinity. Artists and alchemists used to live in the beautiful but cramped buildings.

During our stay, my friends and I made sure to walk the Charles Bridge. Built in the 1300s, the bridge is a huge tourist attraction because of its unique history and the Baroque-style statues that stare down at you from the bridge's edge. Even though the bridge was so crowded that I felt overwhelmed walking across it, I enjoyed the bridge because the statues looked pretty framed against the river and the Prague skyline.


For our last night in Prague, my study abroad program booked a jazz boat down the Moldau river for all 75 students. We drank wine and ate nachos while cruising down the river, with the beautiful medieval city of Prague as our backdrop. Studying abroad is  obviously tough work!

On Saturday, we hopped on a train back to Berlin. I absolutely loved Prague, but I don't think I'll be returning anytime soon. Four days was plenty of time to see the main sites and get a feel for the city. Also,  I don't think there is much to do besides marvel at medieval buildings, shop, or scope out the best views of the cityscape. A word of advice if you visit Prague: watch out for pickpockets. Apparently theft is extremely common in all of the major tourist areas, like the Charles Bridge or Astrological Clock. My friend saw men pretending to take selfies on their phones, but they were actually using the front-facing camera to see if anyone standing behind them was an easy pickpocketing target. Scary stuff!

Overall, I couldn't imagine a better visit to Prague, and I couldn't be happier to check visiting the Czech Republic off my bucket list! (And if you read this entire post, thank you for sticking with me! I know this was a long one.)