My journey to the Czech Republic began with an 8 hour bus ride through Slovakia, with a wee break in Bratislava, where the rows and rows of communist style block apartment buildings (known in this part of the world as Paneláks) dominating the horizon were a stark reminder of the lingering hangover of recent history in this part of the world.
Finally arriving in Prague, my hostel was about a ten minute tram ride from the city centre, containing everything a traveller could possibly need, the crown jewel was its underground cellar bar packed to the rafters with amazingly delicious, perfect for the extreme heat, Czech beer. I’ve never been a big beer drinker, but it’s amazing how fast you develop a thirst for it!! Unfortunately at this rate I’m sure to be developing a less desirable beer belly as well ….. but given those here in the Czech Republic consume on average 160 litres of beer per person per year, it would be rude not to join in!
After a few beers too many, and a free hostel BBQ dinner with all the trimmings, this was an ideal way to start the day in the cosy court yard of the hostel …
… before it was back to pounding the pavement to take in all the wonders Prague has to offer.
Exploring the grounds around Prague castle was first on the agenda, with Anya, a lovely Russian/American girl I met in the hostel, covering around 18 acres of land it is huge. However, it definitely wasn’t the most amazing of castles I’ve seen on my journey so far, with the crowds of tourists there definitely detracting from the experience, the place was literally heaving with people.
After lunch of Czech Goulash, dumplings, and of course beer, we joined one of Prague’s walking tour, complete with a giant Scottish guide. Taking us through Old town, past the 600 year old astronomical clock (officially one of the most overrated sights in Europe), through the Jewish quarter and past the 1270 oldest active Jewish synagogue, we checked out the beautiful art nouveau inspired buildings dotted around the city, as well as stopping for, you guessed it, more beer.
After browsing the souvenir stands of Charles Bridge, I took a stroll to the Lennon wall, before dining on more Czech food with a few others from the hostel. Ordering a variety of local dishes to share, the key learning of the night was definitely that Czechs enjoy things deep fried …. Bread/cheese/potato pancakes you name it. Delicious of course, but oh so bad.
The next day Anya and I decided to take a day trip to the small town of Terezin, a former Jewish Ghetto and Nazi prison. 155,000 people passed through Terezin during the war, 35,000 of them perished there, while another 87,000 were transported on from there to their deaths.
Many of them of course were children, and for the first time I felt like I got a real insight into what life during this period has been like for them. This was mainly down to the surviving artwork that was created by them, in an art school in the ghetto set up by a Jewish art teacher. The pictures and paintings depicted their interpretation of life in the Ghetto, as well as what they missed most from home, and what they hoped for again in the future, a future most of them never lived to see.
With very little photographic evidence of life for the people in Terezin at that time, it was art that survived from the adult population as well. Many of the artists sent there were put to work as technical workers, instructed to create false illustrations of life in the camp to use in Nazi propaganda campaigns. But many covertly and secretly used their resources to create realistic representations of life there which they smuggled to the outside world. It was some of the most desperate soul aching art work I’ve ever seen. Most of the artists were of course found out, sent to the Ghetto prison, and killed.
The town itself, which is almost completely cut off from the outside world by fortification walls built by the Hapsburg’s, has an incredibly eery feeling, and wandering the streets I could almost feel the weight of it’s dark past. While local Czechs were ordered out of the area at the time it was turned into the ghetto, these days the small town is of course sparsely populated again.
We stopped for lunch at one of the local places on offer. I couldn’t decipher anything on the menu so basically closed my eyes and pointed. What came out was a very basic, messy looking plate of pork, dumplings and a tonne of gravy. Not one to turn my nose up at food, I dug in. It was without a doubt right up there with the tastiest food I’ve eaten. Just another example of how some of the best experiences can often come when they’re least expected and in the strangest places.
The next day I travelled a little South of the city centre to Vysehrad castle and park, an incredibly tranquil area, that despite only being four metro stops from the old city, felt worlds away as tourist numbers dropped off dramatically.
As much as I would have liked to stay in this peaceful end of the city, with so much still on the ‘to do’ list, it was back to old town and the windy streets still crawling with people.
Back in the thick of it I visited a memorial I had wanted to see since I initially arrived. Commemorating two young Czech students, who both set themselves on fire in 1969 in protest following the Prague spring. At just 21 and 22 years old, the young men wanted to wake up their Czech brothers and sisters and show them they had to fight back against their communist oppressors for their freedom. But sadly it was too little too late, the country had already become a normalised communist regime again, and like their fellow eastern counterparts, it would be another twenty years before the Czech people would finally take back control of their country.
Continuing my Communist era education, I headed off to the Communism Museum, with the irony of its location (above a McDonald’s and next to a casino) definitely not lost on me.It was yet another example of an extremely fascinating museum.
Rounding the day out, I finished as I’d started, and escaped a sudden deluge of rain by enjoying more Czech beer at a beer garden overlooking the city.
While I would have to say of all the people I’ve encountered so far, the Czechs definitely don’t have the sunniest of dispositions, you have to admire the resilience of the people here. There’s been very little time in their history where they’ve actually been governed by Czechs and not foreign powers, yet they’ve held steadfastly to their cultural identity. Like many times during this European journey, here in Prague I was struck again with an overwhelming sense of gratitude for what we’ve got, and the past we’ve had, in our little corner of the world.
I was incredibly sad to say goodbye to Prague, and of course the Czech beer, again I think exploring more of the countryside would have been a fascinating experience. But alas with a strict budget and timetable to keep to, it was onwards to the final step on my Eastern Journey, Poland.