After the Beautiful Competition damn near worked herself to death for her major event, we knew it was going to be time to take a little bit of, well, time. So we booked a trip to Prague on lastminute.com and spent the last three and a half days there. Just what the doctor ordered.
Prague's a city of contrast. More appropriately, it's a city of expectation and reality, and it's interesting the number of ways those intersect. Prague has kind of been turned into a bit of a myth by the Western world - both among travelers who remember the good old days right after the fall of Communism when you could eat and drink and stay for fifty bucks a month, and among fantasy aficionados who quite appropriately regard it as a beautiful Gothic and Baroque gem where legends can live. The reality is that it's somewhere between those two things, but intersects with them enough that you get that big grin on your face you get when you know you're experiencing something cool.
We spent 99% of our time in the old city (technically, the "old city," the "new city," the "lesser quarter," the castle, and the Jewish quarter - but it's all really the old city.) Prague is walkable and there's stuff everywhere that caters to tourists, but it's still authentic enough that it doesn't matter. The Astronomical Clock is a little underwhelming, but the city itself is the attraction - the Baroque buildings and churches, the amazing Gothic spires and the cathedral, and the overall vibe of a place that's quiet and still trying to figure itself out after it threw off Communism almost 20 years ago.
In fact we started with a tour of the sites important to the Velvet Revolution, so called because it was mostly bloodless except for the massacre that instigated it and it was lead by intellectuals rather than the military. Any right-wing mouth-breather who thinks intellectualism is the cornerstone of the evils of the godless communist oppression need look no further than Prague and the Czech republic to be proven wrong in a grand fashion. It was a good indication of the importance the Czechs placed on art and their history when we received far more fliers for classical music concerts than we did for dance halls, techno shows or even strip clubs.
After treading the pavement where hundreds of thousands of Czechs assembled to end Communist oppression (attach any political message you want to that, but in my opinion they wouldn't have a memorial to the victims of Communism if it wasn't oppressive in some way), we tread the pavement walked by Kafka during his time in Prague - back through the Old Town Square and into the Jewish quarter, which (like the rest of Prague) was mostly spared during World War II. I mean the buildings, not the residents - of some tens of thousands of Jews who lived there before the Nazis invaded, there may be about 5,000 there now.
Somehow Prague managed to escape the devastation inflicted on so much of Europe during World War II, and this authenticity certainly adds to the feeling of history there. The Jewish Quarter is no exception - you can (and we did) visit the Synagogue where Rabbi Low kept his Golem, the mythical Jewish monster meant to protect the Jews against threats. I also got my first yarmulke so I could cover my head in the Synagogue. Pretty nifty.
The next day, we hit Prague Castle which is actually the original castle but built-over by a lot of Baroque palaces, so there isn't really much castle-y about it. The awesome St. Vitus' Cathedral is up there, probably the best pure Gothic cathedral I've seen apart from Canterbury, and the palaces are all pretty nifty. They're also the current seat of the Czech government so they're functional as well as cool to look at.
The last night we kind of just took it easy - had a few beers, drank some hot mulled wine as we walked around and just enjoyed ourselves. Charles Bridge looks pretty sinister at night with the soot-covered statues glaring at towering over you as you pass. It's not hard to see why Prague takes on just a bit of the sinister at night, and why you could imagine coming face to face with a vampire as easily as you could a tourist who's had too much to drink.
Oddly enough, outside of the city center Prague starts to look a lot like many American cities, especially a little further out when it becomes brand-new apartments, housing developments and office complexes. On the way out, there were several times I could have sworn I was in Dallas if the signs weren't in Czech.
So yes, expectations and reality clash. I didn't meet any vampires or Golems, but that's not to say I didn't expect to see one at any time. Maybe I should have stayed out later. I'll look for 'em a little harder next time I'm there.
Update: Pics here.