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Journals from Vienna, Austria

2013-10-16 Prague, the Golden City, for Better or Worse

Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man and/or woman wake up on time for a 7 a.m. Friday train to Prague. I think that’s how the adage goes.

That adage is exactly what we did on September 20th. Our entire group – all ten of us plus our Ethnic Diversity teacher – was about to spend a weekend in Prague. We would learn about the history of the city, visit important landmarks, and have free time for ourselves after dinner.

When we arrived, we made our way to the hostel, hastily stowed our luggage, exchanged our money (the Czech Republic remains on the Czech Koruna, even though there is still a push within the country to switch to the Euro) and ate something from somewhere that resembled Quiznos.

We then met a tall Czech woman with long brown hair and a warm but commanding presence. Her name was Blanca, and she would be our tour guide for the next three days. Three days in Prague.

Prague is one of those destinations that I had always wanted to see. The rest of the group seemed to have the same thought process. Prague is one of the cities that we have heard about for years, but it is not a place we learn about. It was under Soviet control until 1989 after all, and our history classes in high school never teach us anything substantial about the Eastern Bloc because, well, communism. It’s bad! End of story!

Because of this, Prague has become this bastion of what the Eastern Bloc countries could possibly become, if only they are allowed to inject some capitalism and some democracy; the remedy for all…

And boy, capitalism was everywhere. Kitschy souvenir stores sat on every corner. H&M (which is extremely popular in Vienna as well), Starbucks, Zara, a Hard Rock Café and TGI Friday’s are just a few of the bustling businesses that we American students recognized. A street jutting off of Old Town Square and toward the Jewish quarter is lined with high-end stores where the Kanye Wests and oil barons and the mistresses of politicians stack paper and throw it in the air, buying whichever overpriced item the money falls upon. Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Burberry, Gucci, Prada and more. I think you get the picture.

Prague was a wake-up call. Was this the city that we had come to see? A place that in many ways was unrecognizable if compared to Times Square or Beverly Hills?

Luckily, the city had much more to offer.

To be clear, Prague is a spectacular tourist destination and remains aesthetically stunning, full of history and diverse ethnic backgrounds. Blanca weaved the stories together in a way where the monuments and the city allowed us to breathe in the past.

The Prague Castle complex, which includes the magnificent St. Vitus Cathedral, is across the Vltava River that runs through the city. The view across the river is stunning, even if the sky begins to dump rain upon you, which is exactly what happened to us on day one. But with the view, Prague’s beauty overcame any other emotion at that current moment.

One of the ways to reach the Prague Castle complex is by crossing the Charles Bridge. Charles IV, one of the great rulers of Prague in the 14th century, commissioned the bridge (and St. Vitus Cathedral as well) and it still stands today. Packed with tourists, street artists and kiosks, the bridge can be a difficult proposition as you navigate your way across.

Luckily, if you travel across the bridge and walk up to the Prague Castle complex, the view of the entire city is one of the greatest things we will see during these entire four months in Europe. Former vineyards lay below us, and Prague spanned the entire panorama, melting into the horizon. Not surprisingly, we took many pictures of this view, but none of our pictures can truly capture its beauty.

I could discuss the different aspects of St. Vitus Cathedral that we learned about. After all, there are numerous different artistic styles outside and inside the church. I could discuss the Golden Lane, built under the rule of the eccentric Habsburg ruler Rudolf II. I could discuss the delicious Czech food that almost all of us tried at a couple different restaurants. The most common food we could find was goulash (think of it as a stew with either meat or potatoes or both), often accompanied by bread dumplings. The weather was not warm, so goulash was the way to go.

But what I should discuss is the beauty of Prague at night. The Old Town Square with the imposing beauty of its famous buildings is illuminated, beckoning you to enjoy live street music and drink in the city. The city is often paired nicely with the cheap – and tasty – Czech beer (many bars and restaurants offer beer for less than two Euro, which is exceptional, especially if you like beer) or Czech cuisine or a Trdelnik (a cylindrical pastry that kind of tastes like kettle corn). If we wanted to make our way to Wenceslas Square for cheap eats, we were more than welcome to do so. The magic of Prague was somewhat dampened by the crowds during the day, but dusk ushered in a city bereft of the cacophony and commercialism. This was the Prague that will have a lasting effect for years to come.

It will be interesting to see what Prague becomes in the future. The changes in the past 25 years have been rapid. But for a city that has been through countless changes, the magic remains, and will hopefully survive longer than the Charles Bridge, navigating the city through the future.

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