“There may be no place like it”, they would say.
When I would talk with anyone who had returned from a Prague visit, they would often respond with words similar to that, and then go on to rave about the Czech experience. So when we took our turn, I went with exceedingly high expectations, and with that a concern that they might not be fairly met.
The story of the Czech Republic, especially over the last century, has been turbulent, emotional, and at the end, a triumph of the human spirit. It is a land locked country that has often been humiliated at the hands of its neighbors and conquerors.
Germany overran it easily in 1938. Under the Soviet occupation, its citizens were forced to submit to communist doctrine and an educational system that twisted the realities of history beyond recognition. Ronald Reagan is still a hero to the people who credit his “Tear down this wall”, as one of the launching points for the future that would see them gain freedom. Britain’s Margaret Thatcher is equally highly regarded.
A wall of a different kind, known as the John Lennon Wall, is inscribed with graffiti from words of his songs. The communist authorities kept painting it over, but it would be filled again shortly after and became known as the Lennonism wall, as a sign of protest against the regime.
What makes the Prague history particularly interesting is that while the German Nazi armies controlled the city and country, it was not bombed heavily by the allies during World War II. As a result it emerged from the war, and the subsequent Russian occupation, relatively unscathed as far as building and infrastructure damages are concerned. But what were left, were emotional scars.
A number of our guides spoke of this horrible period of history for them. One, in particular outlined how the Russian dictatorship reacted when her brother was able to escape to Denmark.
Her parents, both professionals, almost immediately lost their jobs. She was denied an education until she took a course few were interested then, computer sciences.
After the fall of the iron curtain her education would leave her in good stead, but she and others we met still bear strong distain for what the USSR did to them.
Free elections today are well supported because they understand how fragile democracy can be.
The Czech Republic is part of the European Union, but has chosen to keep its own currency, although most places readily accept Euros for payment.
While the Prague Castle is a must see, and occupies more land space than any other castle in the world, it is the unique character of the city that have visitors extolling its virtues.
It is like a city that has emerged from the Middle Ages largely intact, with streets and buildings that make much of the city a living museum. It is an architect’s dream visit, with fully preserved buildings from the Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque, and modern eras.
Whether one understands these differences or not, the impact they leave on visitors expresses an appreciation for why this city’s Old Town was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
The city dates back all the way to around 1338. Its Gothic tower and Astronomical Clock attract thousands who gather under it during the prime hours. From 9 AM until 11 PM, on the hour, 12 apostles emerge to the cheers of the crowd, punctuated only by the entertainment that seems to take place non-stop on the square.
Only a short walk away is Charles Bridge, which began construction around the same time, in 1357. Completed in 1402, it features 30 statures of saints which were added over the subsequent centuries, with the most famous being that of St. John of Nepomuk.
Originally called Jesuit Street, Charles Street from the bridge to Old Town Square was the royal route that connected to what is today, the prime shopping and restaurant area of the city.
For those who pursue luxury, appropriately named Paris Street is where you will find the same international brand names as on the Champs-Elysees in Paris or the Via Condotti, in Rome.
But it is not the only area that attracts visitors. Our hotel was situated near Wenceslas Square, where there were a significant number of lesser priced retail options, along with the usual souvenir shops one expects to find around popular shopping areas.
Here people eat at the fanciest restaurants or lunch off the sausage stands scattered along the way.
It was an interesting bonus to accidentally choose a restaurant near it, the Café Svateho Vaclava, which happens to be a popular hangout for Czech and visiting hockey players, like Winnipeg’s Ondrej Pavelec. Its table placemats feature in-restaurant photos of him, Jaromir Jagr, the Edmonton Oilers, the Czech National team, and even Russian player Alex Ovechkin.
There is so much to experience in this exceptional city.
A visit to the Jewish Quarter in many ways illuminates the pattern of prejudice that occurred in much of Europe before and during the Nazi era.
It is also the area where blends of architectural eras are very evident, with buildings from the Renaissance, Baroque, and Gothic periods.
The Old Jewish Cemetery is one of Europe’s oldest surviving Jewish cemeteries, and is connected to Pinkas Synagogue that today serves as a memorial to the over 77,000 Czech Jewish victims of the Nazis. Every known name is inscribed on its walls, along with a collection of artifacts and drawings by children taken from the WWII Terezin concentration camp.
Dining in the Czech Republic is a very different experience from what you will find in any other country. It seems like there is no such thing as a small meal. And if you like gravy with your meats and potatoes, you will find a happy home here.
Pig knuckles, goulashes, and schnitzels, along with generous helpings of sauerkraut and bread dumplings, are common menu features for lunch and dinner. From restaurant to restaurant we found quality and friendly service to be consistent traits. And while a variety of wines are always available, it is largely a beer drinking nation, which is very proud of its tradition of making these fine brews.
We would end our stay with long walks along the narrow cobblestone streets, admiring the still functional historic buildings and spires that seem to crop up at every turn. Apparently there are over a thousand spires and towers scattered through the city.
We would stop when we were tired for a cup of great coffee, and watch the never ending sea of humanity from all over the world pass us by. While English is not understood by everyone, there is no problem communicating in the hospitality outlets, stores, or restaurants.
Because of the enthusiasm of those who spoke about their visits to Prague and the Czech Republic, I indeed did approach our visit with expectations I felt might not be met.I was completely wrong. I have become a fan, as has my wife. We would go back again anytime, stay longer, and explore other regions of the country as well.