Its been a long time coming - 4 1/2 years in fact - but it couldn't be avoided any longer.
I've bitten the bullet and been to Prague.
I have done all the places that are near to 'home', taken all the cheap flights with budget airlines to get to them and finally I had to start looking further afield.
When I left NZ I actually wrote a list of all the places I had wanted to see. It reads much as I'm sure anyone elses may read: Paris, Venice, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Florence, Piza, Milan etc.
The last places from the original list are: Vienna, Prague, Madrid and Greece. I admit that 'Greece' doesn't exactly follow the specifics I have set down for the others but I want to go to Athens and I quite fancy taking some photos from a pristine white village in the hills of some greek island overlooking pure blue waters but I have no idea which island other than 'definitely not Rhodes' and 'probably Crete or Kefalonia' - my options are open and I quite like the idea of starting in Athens and then enjoying 2 weeks deciding which island I liked the most. Rhodes notwithstanding of course!
But I digress. Prague. A pillar of 'the list'. A bright shining beam and so obviously the next place to go it was amazing I didn't do it 12 months ago.
The Prague epic will wing its way to everyone on my mailing list (whether they want it or not) in the near future. I'm constructing it even now. However I thought a blog is better than a book in the meantime. If anyone is interested in the epic tale and thinks I may not send it to them - let me know and you to can receive the painfully long and detailed 'no you've read it you don't need to pay to go there' tale of my time in Prague.
Or else you can just enjoy this.
I went to Prague with my cousin Bodhi. He may well have been hoping for a beer fest of epic proportions but he'll have learnt to travel with someone else if thats the case. While the beer was superb I'm not a hefty drinker. I did eat heftily however - they have great food in Prague. The dumplings being the best of it. And the sausages. Fab! Yum! etc...
We arrived on a Tuesday morning in late May and after dropping bags and whatnot at the hotel we headed straight for the metro and the city centre. After an initial worry about whether we would manage navigation in a country where we didn't speak a word of the language we quickly found it was no harder than any other metro we'd ever been on and they even had huge flat screens showing news items and the time the next train was due on the walls! The very c. edge of tech.! Indeed.
The metro was to prove a great achievement. I have learnt my only real Czech sentence from the metro announcements and I'm not even sure if it is a complete sentence. I also discovered I could translate almost anything said over the tannoy - thats how similar the underground networks are. If only I had paid more attention to the phrase for 'mind the gap please'!
We spent our time in Prague wandering the myriad of street, sampling sausages, tasting beers and shopping at many many market stalls and souvenir shops selling Absinthe. We also wandered agog amongst the buildings of the Hrad or castle and took delight in the very European architecture in what felt like a very gothic city.
It wasn't at all what I expected. I think I had a mental image of the onion domes in Moscow and anticipated a true eastern European atmosphere stuck in medieval times and instead we could have been in a slightly Germanic version of Paris or Barcelona. It was lovely though. Worth the time and effort to go there, worth the miles and miles we walked. Just to taste the flavour of the city and see how effortlessly the past has melded with modern times. The beautiful facades of so many buildings were a distraction to tantalise an antipodean imagination. Tales of Kings and Queens, saints and persecution are probably why I had a strong sense of some sort of potential eastern/Arthurian setting. But being there and learning more about the city's history and what they have suffered in their time was a great experience.
Tuesday we spent orienting ourselves. We found a brilliant aussie owned pub (typical - looking for something traditionally Czech and we get aussie!) and were guided by the owner to find a shrivelled arm hung on a wall, which we promptly did (after we'd finished our beers of course). We explored all over the city and went to the Charles bridge (Karel Most) and looked at all the amazing statues and the street stalls and the views. We got intermittently rained on in true old-fashioned Spring-time style. We managed to take more photos than you could think possible! We stopped at dozens and dozens of little shops looking for just the right kind of Absinthe at just the right price. We bought crazy gifts and souvenirs and I marvelled at how a country can have Russian dolls as both a poke at the russians and a thriving souvenir trade. We found asupermarket. We couldn't find a post box. We found a dozen kebab stalls, we couldn't find a Czech restaurant for dinner. We chose the most Czech looking meals on the menu of the restaurant we did find and we delighted inFrench cuisine, czech style. But I do not complain. The meal we ate then was glorious and a good introduction. We were to eat our fill of Czech food on Wednesday.
Wednesday we reserved mostly for the Castle and a bit of shopping. Time flies when you're looking at Castles. The Prague Hrad is fabulous. An enclosure of buildings that must have been a whole other world in its hey-day that will occupy a lifetime if you don't plan in advance. After a short orientational wander we decided to retreat to a recommended cafe and get our plans sorted. This involved reading selected parts of the travel guide we had and ticking the boxes. Post refreshment we headed back to the throng and got a ticket that included the cathedral, tower, old palace and golden lane. The cathedral was much better than expected but rather like the Mens Abbey in Caen, Normandy. It did have an empty feel too it - like it wasn't used for services anymore.
The tower was nearly 300 steps straight up. All that rowing has kept me fit for stair climbing at least! The view from the tower is brilliant and you could see all of Prague below - a wave of terracotta roof tiles and pale yellow walls as far as you could see with lush and leafy green trees peppered here, there and everywhere between.
From the tower we spent too long wandering in the drizzle (that regularly turned to down pour before returning to drizzle) looking for how to get into the old palace. All the signs that said 'old palace' kept leading us to other places where we would be turned back by ticket takers to wander around aimlessly once again. I began to feel that tourism in Prague had a lot to learn from places like Notre Dame or the Colloseum!
We eventually found the entry (well - they didn't stop us) after bumping into several groups who were also struggling to find the entry and had a good explore around. You could go all over the place from the great hall and its brilliantly preserved wooden floor (though it may not be original) where you could easily imagine huge banquets and lavish balls taking place, to bedrooms and chapels where you struggled to imagine someone wanting to sleep in such a cold looking place. The rooms only had sparse furnishing and would have been really interesting if at least one were set up as it would have been but they were still brilliant to get to.
After running around all over the place and double checking we'd seen it all it was time to move on. My tummy was grumbling (not rumbling note - grumbling) and we still had the Golden lane to visit. At which point the heavens opened. Fortunately a sign saying 'Torture devices' was just near the entryway - thusly were we enticed! (wasn't the rain that encouraged us inside at all!)
From what I can assume the Golden lane runs the length of the outer wall and the buildings are a part of that wall. There was a long gallery with lots of armour and weapons on display and it even still had working peep hole things that twisted so archers could defend to any angle from the window. There were costumes of the day and finally at teh end of the gallery an archery thing set up so you could try your hand at shooting targets. Bodhi had a go and managed to hit the target at least twice! ;-)
After wandering up and down the gallery we finally came aross the torture chamber. It was the size of a small double bedroom and had a skeleton on the rack and lots of devices hung all over the place. It was also right next to the privy which I thought was intriguing - is that all part of the torture?
The rest of the golden lane is little souvenir and craft shops or cafes so we headed into the rain and aimed for the powder tower (or at least thats what I thinks its called).
To get inside the tower you have to walkdown a series of steps and then another series of steps feeling like you are sinking deeper and deeper into the ground. However the tower is built at the river edge of the castle - the down hill side - so it actually sticks out of the hill rather than into the ground and sunshine still peeps in the windows. Very weird.
It is called the powder tower because thats what was kept in it btw. There wasn't an enormous amount to see but it was worth the walk.
And once that job was done and we were back outside again my tummy decided it would go on strike if I didn't get some food so we aimed down the hill and back to town.
We found a brilliant restaurant that did proper Czech food and had a four course meal for about £10 including beers right at the edge of the Jewish quarter. My stomach may never complain about being hungry again I ate so much. I had rabbit as my main and Bodhi had duck and both dishes came with dumpling - I don't think I've ever eaten so much. It was heaven on a plate!
From there we found out a bit more about the old Jewish Ghetto and decided to make that our stop for Thursday before heading home.
Then it was back to town for more wandering and shopping... Wednesday night we went back in to town quite late for a quick bite and a drink. We just randomly picked streets to go down and came across the weirdest street art (like a Zombie fair), came across the 'other' Powder tower and city walls, down all sorts of alleys until we once again located the aussies pub! I think Bodhi got some great photos of the Zombies and the tower but I am afraid I didn't have my camera with me.
Thursday we headed straight for the Jewish quarter and got ourselves sorted to visit various synagogues and the Jewish cemetary. This was a really worthy visit. As a bit of recent history; at the time of the second world war the Jews in Prague and over most of Czechoslovakia (Bohemia and Moravia if you prefer) were effectively herded into ghettos as they were in Poland and elsewhere the Nazis managed to take over. The now well known atrocities were carried out. The children were excluded from schools and the parents were forced out of jobs, families were put under enormous pressure and tens of thousands of people were forced to live in more than cramped conditions surviving day to day fearful for their lives. Most were shipped out to concentration camps and didn't survive the war. The ghetto was mostly knocked down to make way for building a new posh area of town but the synagogues were preserved. Hitler having the master stroke idea of using this small area as a museum to an extint race/culture. Charming chap, wouldn't you say!?
This is also the home to the Golem so there is lots to keep you interested. The synagogues are lovely slightly austere buildings and the Jewish communittee has made the absolute most of them to serve as a reminder of the horrors of the 'great wars' and the resounding strength of a people almost persecuted into extinction. In a pristine, clearly wealthy setting this small area is like a haven and a terrible reminder at the same time. I'd recommend it to anyone. The cemetary where the headstones are piled up dozens of layers deep and the signs tell you the dead were buried 12 layers deep is shocking and peaceful at the same time.
After such a weighty tour we lightened the mood a bit by stopping at a supermarket on our way back to the hotel for one last chance to bring a wee bit of prague home with us.
Bodhi achieved what I believed to be impossible - 20 bottles of beer and enough sausage to sink a fizz boat. We made sure we had all sorts of little things we'd not seen in the UK and then had the pack them all in our backpacks to ensure they'd get on the plane.
We were 2kg underweight! Oh the relief.