The trip begins in the evening with a two-hour walking tour of Prague’s Old Town (Staré Město), which starts in Wenceslas Square. Our trip leader Carla gives us a brief history lesson about the area. We then make our way over to Old Tyne Square, and get a look at the Astronomical Clock in action.
As twilight sets in and the sky grows darker, our posse makes its way to the Jewish Quarter for a historical backgrounder on Prague’s Jewish community, and then around and over to the Charles Bridge. It’s a great idea to do the tour in the evening, since it’s cooler and a little less congested. And with the way the lights twinkle and reflect in the water, everything looks picture-perfect.
Afterwards, the group breaks up, and about a dozen of us go with Carla to a local pub for a pint of pilsner. As someone who doesn’t drink a lot of heavy beers because of the taste, the pint of Pilsner Urquell I imbibe isn’t half-bad.
But my travel-related fatigue has caught up with me – I feel my lids grow heavy and droop with drowsiness. Fortunately, the group soon calls it a night, and we return back to the hotel.
The next day is our group’s first free day – and it was activity-packed.
I set out for Prague Castle with Angela, Lauren, and an American traveller named Randy at 8:30 a.m. to beat the crowds and the heat. We take the metro, hopping off at Starometska station, and hike the rest of the way up.
Inside the castle complex, we start at St. Vitus’ Cathedral. Okay, so maybe trying to go unguided wasn’t the best way to tackle this beautiful but monstrous church -we didn’t really know what everything was. But who in their right mind would pay 300 Czech koruny ($19.83 CAD) for an audioguide, on top of the 250 koruny ($16.50 CAD) it costs to get in? (My first lesson on how expensive Prague is.)
The only thing we manage to find – and understand – is the tomb of St. John of Nepomuk, a national saint who, according to legend, was thrown into the Vlatva river for refusing to divulge the confessions of the Queen of Bohemia to her jealous husband.
From there, we head into the Palace, which is grand and has some pretty views of the city. Unfortunately, we can’t snap any photos of the smaller rooms because you need a “photo license”. Yet another money-making venture.
No matter. We zip though the rest of the palace, peek in at St. George’s Basilica, and look around the Golden Lane. (Us three girls go into one of the jewellery shops to buy some stuff for ourselves, while poor Randy is made to wait outside.)
Next: the Jewish Quarter. It’s the first of a number of places we’ll see on our trip, with respect to the unspeakably horrid treatment of Jews in human history, specifically during the Second World War.
We first visit the Pinkas Synagogue, a memorial to the Jewish victims of the Czech regions of Bohemia and Moravia. The walls of the main parts of the building are covered with thousands of names. One wall particularly resonates with me – it has one family name which takes up at least a third of the surface area.
An entire family. Can you even imagine?
One of the rooms in the upper section of the building is dedicated to the artwork of many Jewish children and young adults who were in the camps. If I can recall correctly, a lot of their schooling was done in secret because it simply wasn’t allowed … so there are tonnes of hand-drawn and painted images, some pieces of work that are obviously lessons of some kind. Some of the kids survived; many did not. But the drawings and paintings speak volumes.
We step outside into the Old Jewish Cemetery, where thousands of people are buried. The ground is uneven, and the tombstones lean this way and that, like rows of crooked teeth. Angela (who smartly bought a “photo license” on the way in), takes all the photos on our behalf.
After lunch – which entails the first of many sausages on my trip – we hit the markets. Dolls, paintings, candies, fruits, veggies, and souvenir knick-knacks everywhere you look. Some of the stuff is nice, but the prices weren’t all that enticing … especially after doing the conversions in our heads and realizing the prices are a steal – for the vendors. Sigh.
Following the search for souvenirs – which for me isn’t fruitful – our group of four breaks in half. Angela and I go off to find the marionette theatre to buy tickets for its production of Don Giovanni.
The puppet show is, um, good … but when we’re not fidgeting on those hard theatre seats, we take turns nodding off (or fighting sleep) because we’re SO tired from the heat and all the walking around. I just remember waking up to a loud noise during the play’s climax, and having no idea why there was some big ugly dude covered in grey paint waving his arms about. He just about scares the bejeezus out of me. (I’m wide awake after that, though.)
With the play over, Angela and I head back out towards the Charles Bridge to meet our other tour-mates for dinner. I figure, after that I could call it a day and return to the hotel for an early night’s sleep, since we have to leave early for Krakow the next morning.
Ha. Famous last words …