February 9, 2006

Prague, Thoughts

Filed under: Travels, Prague — Alex Ravenel @ 11:51 am

Just like in the Berlin post, I couldn’t fit everything in the narrative, so here are a few final random thoughts about Prague.

  • Prague is probably the sketchiest city I’ve ever been to. Walking around at night, an endless stream of guys would walk up to you offering to whisk you away to a cabaret, or bar “just” 15km away–I’m not kidding. Like I’m going to get into a car with a random Eastern European and let him drive me somewhere 15km away. It was incredible. You could see them, stretching the streets like a net, and despite turning the first one down, it didn’t stop the next 10 from accosting you. I even reverted to speaking German to throw them off when they came at me in English–it didn’t work, they kept spouting their, probably prescripted, lines in English.
  • It was cold. I’ve been in Germany, and I thought that was cold, but it now feels downright balmy compared to Prague. The highest temperature we saw was below 20 degrees fahrenheit, and it was frequently below that. I wore two pairs of pants, 3 shirts, a thick wool sweater, two coats, two pairs of gloves, a hat, and the hood to my jacket, and it was still cold.
  • Prague is being steadily Westernized. This is to be expected. But just from the tales and photos I’ve seen from Byron Baldwin, I can tell that it’s changed. Prices are still quite cheap–$1 beers, $5 large meals–if you get off the tourist drag, but I get the feeling that even that’s disappearing; once the Euro comes into circulation there in a couple of years, I fear that’ll be the end of an affordable Prague–it’ll be just as bad as Paris or Rome. But I managed to make it through very comfortably on $40 a day, including hostel, and we were eating and drinking well. Not bad.
  • The hostel we stayed in, The Boathouse, was awesome. Probably the best hostel I’ve stayed in yet. The owners were unbelievably friendly, they would cook excellent breakfasts or dinners for a swansong, and the location, while out of the way, would be amazing in the summer, when you could sit on the deck and watch the river flow by, or even take a boat out.
  • It’s a strange feeling dealing in currencies that trade at such a high number to the dollar. The Czech Koruna is about 24 to one US dollar. It’s a funny feeling walking around with 1000 Koruna notes in your pocket, a bill which is really only worth about $40.
  • We saw the coolest graffiti on a tram overpass. “Stop crying and record a mix tape.” Classic.
  • My German was surprisingly helpful there. I didn’t expect many people to speak German, but being able to speak it certainly helped me on several occasions

February 8, 2006

Prague, Part Two

Filed under: Travels, Prague — Alex Ravenel @ 9:05 pm

Note: This is part of a series. Read the first part here.

TheresienstadtThe next morning, we got out of bed a bit earlier than we had the previous day, nothing terribly difficult given that we had actually gone to bed at a reasonable hour the night before. Today we had a specific agenda, one thing we wanted to do that would take up most of the day, and something we needed to get a jump-start on: the concentration camp Theresienstadt, Terezin in Czech, about an hour by bus from Prague. I was particularly pleased by this as it had previously been looking like I would leave Germany after having been here for six months without having seen a concentration camp, something I wasn’t too happy about.

TheresienstadtWe set out for the bus station and after some minor navigational issues, found it and got our tickets. While waiting for the bus we entertained ourselves by looking at all the people hawking cheap, touristy, counterfeit merchandise. We soon got on the bus and rode the easy hour through the frozen Czech countryside to the camp.

Theresienstadt, ShowersUpon disembarking the bus, it was immediately clear where we were. In front of us lay a field, filled with endless rows of small gravestones, many without names, and with a massive cross and star of David in the middle. It was a sobering start to a sobering visit, but one that I’m immensely glad to have made. Theresienstadt, TourThe whole camp is perversely situated inside a massive brick fortress, so massive that it has an actual town inside its walls that, originally meant to keep people out, gained their infamy from keeping people in. We walked through the massive gates and immediately got a feel for the deolation that people must have felt there, with the holding dormitories all lines up and the obvious feel of being locked in a prison.

Theresienstadt, GateWalking beneath a twisted “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign (though not the Arbeit Macht Frei sign at Dachau that is so infamous), we entered into an even more disparate part of the camp, and had the luck to join up with a tour group going through so that we could get some insight into what all the buildings were used for, other than my crude German reading the signs above doors–”Wash Room,” “Commandant’s Office,” and the non-descript but equally, if not more, disturbing simple numbers above many of the doors.

Theresienstadt, TreesWe followed this tour to its completion, seeing the site of the one successful escape attempt, several holding cells, the tunnels that ran under the whole fortress, and the execution grounds where the walls still bear the holes left by the bullets 60 years ago. Once we finished the tour, we headed into town, intending to see the ghetto musuem, but running out time, necessitating our catching the bus back to Prague.

That evening, we ate dinner at Lemon Leaf, an excellent asian fusion restaurant. I had an appetizer, a main course of duck, a beer, a dessert, and I split a bottle of wine with someone, and my bill was a grand total of… $20. Incredible. From there we headed out onto the town for a night out.

Prague, Street BandThe next morning we were a bit slow getting up. Once we did, we headed into town to walk around the Old Quarter. While beautiful, I must admit that I was a bit underwhelmed–much of it seemed nothing more than trinket shops. However, we didn’t get much time to spend there, so I can’t really judge that. We soon went to the Communist Museum, a small private museum detailing the communist history of the Czech Republic, including it’s occupation by the Soviets. It was an interesting and, like Theresienstadt, a sobering experience. Filled with photographs, recreations, statues, and old items like posters, cans of food, magazines, and military hardware from communist Czechoslovakia.

Prague, Charles BridgeThat night we ate an unfortunately subpar dinner and then wandered for about an hour looking for a bar–who would have thought it would have been that hard? I don’t know what it was, though I suspect it was just because of the section of town we were in–but even so, I’ve never seen such a dearth of watering holes. We finally found an excellent place, a local place, and sat down for a few beers and good, cheap gin and tonics.

Prague AirportThe next morning, I caught a lazy breakfast, and then headed off to the airport. I was happy to be leaving the bitter fifteen degree cold, but wouldn’t have minded staying in Prague for another night, especially considering the guys I’d met there were still there for another night. But such are the sacrifices you have to make for a cheap ticket on a budget airline.

As always, there are more photos in the Photo Gallery.

February 7, 2006

Prague, Part One

Filed under: Travels, Prague — Alex Ravenel @ 7:31 pm

Note: This post is part of a series. Read the second part here.

I made it back from London just fine. Here’s the first part of my trip to Prague, only a week late…

Prague, River ViewWednesday afternoon, skipping my one class for the day, I caught the bus to the airport. I easily glided through security and got to my gate, soon boarding my flight before making the quick hop to Prague. Getting out of the gate and walking to the bus terminal, I was immediately struck by how cold it was. I’d know it was going to be cold, but there is a difference between reading it will be 20 degrees and stepping out into it. I was just as immediately accosted by the Prague stereotype–rogue taxi drivers. “Hey man, you need a ride?” “Cheap taxi!” “I’ll take you into town, cheap!” No thanks. I took the bus to the nearest metro stop, from there catching the subway and then another bus to the hostel.

Prague, UntitledThe hostel, The Boathouse, was one of the nicer I’ve stayed in. While it was an unfortunately long way out of town, 25 minutes by tram, I suspect it’s location, on a quiet part of the Vltava south of town, would actually be a very nice place in summer. Location aside, everything else was incredible. The women that run it are like mothers, and took care of anything we needed. They also offered dinner and deluxe breakfast, both excellent, for excellent prices.

Prague, CastleImmediately after checking in, I met Joel, a rather awkward, though very nice, American from Seattle. We hung out while I waited for my friends from London to arrive on their later flight. We ate dinner at the hostel, enjoying an excellent goulash stew followed by schnitzel, then we went into town for a bit to grab a beer. I got my first sight of the Charles Bridge here, lit up at night with the castle towering on the other bank. The Charles Bridge is by far one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen, and stolling across it with the Vltava flowing under you while the gorgeous medieval buildings rise on either side is a wonderful experience.

Prague, Castle GuardGetting back to the hostel, the guys from London soon arrived, and we all sat down with a few beers and drank and caught up for a bit. I hadn’t seen these guys for four or more months, so it was excellent to get to talk to them. Eventually we decided to head to bed so that we’d still have some energy to get up the next morning.

Prague CathedralThat next morning, we caught a wonderful breakfast at the hostel, then headed into town. We walked along the Vltava, where I saw several sights I know from photographs that my good friend and former photography teacher, Byron Baldwin had taken, one of which I have framed and hanging on my wall in Charlotte. We then caught a tram across the river and up the hill to the castle, narrowly avoiding getting busted for having slightly expired tickets.

Prague, ViewThe castle in Prague is actually nothing like a castle that one thinks of. The seat of Czech government for some time, it is actually an enclosed palace area, encompassing many different residences and buildings, and even containing its own very large gothic cathedral. At all the gates stand guards, very similar to the royal guards in London, standing stock still while tourists flock around them taking pictures. They even march around the grounds in groups of three. We walked around the grounds for a while, some wandering into the cathedral while others of us just walked the grounds. Probably the most incredible part was one of the gates, what had to have been the main gate, surrounded by wraught iron fencing topped with incredible statues, guarded by more stone-still royal guards, and looking over the most incredible view of Prague. The Vltava spreads out below you, while the endless red roofs of the Mala Strana, the Little Quarter, cluster along the side of the hill. It was a fantastic view, and reaffirmed to me that Prague was by far the most beautiful city I’ve ever been to, surpassing London, Paris, and even Rome.

Prague, StreetSoon, stomachs growling with hunger, we walked up the hill a bit more to the monastery brewery there for lunch and a couple of drinks. The lunch was good, but the beer, brewed on the premises, was incredible–and incredibly potent. The amber was 13% alcohol, while the dark was 14%. The funny thing was, you couldn’t taste the alcohol at all, though you could feel it as it hit your stomach and started tingling, or when you had a nice buzz after only one beer. We had to deliberately pace ourselves lest we end up drunk, but we managed to leave with nothing more than a nice buzz, a welcome shield from the bitter cold outside.

By this time, the sun was starting to go down, so we wandered around through the city and across the Charles Bridge, taking in the view in the fading daylight. We then caught the tram back home to shower and warm up, but after a nice dinner, we were all so tired and not wanting to go back out in the cold that we skipped plans to go out that night and instead managed to get to bed at an early hour.

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