Tuesday, March 22, 2011
It has been eight years since I studied in Prague. Eight years since I lived in New Town, since I attended classes in art history, international relations, economics, and Czech language. Eight years since I did four months of Prague sightseeing, since I got on a train to Munich and left the city behind.
While many of my memories of Prague remain intact, others are starting to fade at the edges and blur in the center. Some have even disappeared altogether. My forgetfulness isn’t helped by the fact that I lost all 900 of my photos from Prague when my computer hard drive died the day I planned to put them online.
Over the almost decade since I was last there, I have wanted to return to visit the city, refresh the memories, and replace the photos. I have had a number of opportunities to go back to Prague, but none has resulted in my actually doing so. With all of the new places in the world to explore, Prague has taken second place to other destinations.
Finally this year I found an opportunity to revisit the beautiful city on the Vltava. My cousin, who sings in a choir in San Francisco, was performing in Prague the same week that I was going to Germany for ITB Berlin. The two cities were too close to turn down the opportunity to do both in one trip.
On Friday afternoon I hopped on a train at the main train station in Berlin. Four-and-a-half hours later I pulled into its counterpart in Prague, the Hlavni Nadrazi. It was fitting to start my trip in the same place that I had ended my previous stay in the city, and I alighted with a sense of being home after a long journey.
The Hlavni Nadrazi was a beautiful old building, if a little in need of a paint job. Unfortunately, it was also a well-known hangout for pickpockets (or it was when I lived in Prague). The park outside of the train station was also a den of thievery, so much so that my Czech friends used to refer to the area as ‘Sherwood Forest’.
Hurrying though the station and out of the park, I made my way up the hill to Wenceslas Square. As I walked, I passed the state opera house, where I saw Carmen all those years ago. I also went by the National Museum and the Natural History Museum, where my art history class had spent time analyzing the architecture of the buildings and the merits of their contents.
Memories flooding back, I walked north along streets overflowing with Prague’s unique mix of colorful historical buildings and brutal Soviet architecture, and made my way to the office of Mary’s, the Prague accommodation providers that had offered me a stay at one of their apartments for my three nights in the city.
There I was met by Pavlina, who gave me my keys and directed me to my apartment, which was only two blocks away. I walked over to the building, reading every Czech sign on the way in hopes that it would refresh my memory of a language I had long forgotten. It did. Words started to come back and fit like puzzle pieces into a long-abandoned linguistic jigsaw.
When I arrived at my building, I opened the door and found myself in a spacious flat with a kitchen, living room, bed, and split bathroom and shower room. It was bright and new, and everything I needed was provided (including free Wi-Fi!).
I didn’t have much time to settle in before I left my Prague apartment to meet up with my cousin, her husband, and some of their friends. Their hotel was serendipitously located just two minutes from where I was staying, and since it was my cousin’s birthday that day, we all met in their room to share the Champagne and strawberries that their hotel had thoughtfully given her.
When the bubbly was finished, we piled into a taxi and went to dinner at a very unique restaurant. Located on the top two floors of a bell tower that was once part of Prague’s medieval city wall, Zvonice was beautifully designed with exposed wooden beams and large windows offering views over the city.
Our server, Lucas, took good care of us all night. As an introduction to Prague, he and I encouraged everyone to try the herbal liquor Becherovka to start. It went over as well as it went down. As for the food, everything from the sauerkraut and mashed potato soup with chanterelles, to the svickova with bread dumplings, to the dessert sorbets was excellent.
The next morning I woke up early, excited to do some Prague sightseeing in the city where I had lived and studied. I decided to spend the day on the east side of the river, where the Old Town, New Town, and historic Jewish quarter were located.
I walked down Wenceslas Square, looking at all of the beautiful old buildings and refreshing my memory of what was new and what wasn’t. I remembered some of the hotels and the giant Bata shoe store, but the two Starbucks were new since my time in Prague (in fact all of the Starbucks in the city were new since my time in Prague), and the doughnut shop on the corner of Na Prikope was gone.
I turned the corner, heading east, and walked down the pedestrian shopping street, remembering how I single-handedly kept the Mango store in business, and reliving the hours I spent in the Zara store without ever finding anything to buy.
Further along, I found myself in Namesti Republiky in front of one of my favorite buildings in Prague: the Municipal House. Built in the early 20th century, the building was partially designed by Alphonse Mucha, the famous Czech Art Nouveau artist.
The top floor was sumptuous with its high-end French restaurant and cafe, while the bottom floor, with its Arts and Crafts-like pub, was just as pretty as I remembered it. The theater, which I had been to once for a concert, was closed to non-ticket holders, but it was still nice to get a glimpse of the beautiful building with its impeccable attention to detail.
Exiting the Municipal House, I walked through the adjacent Powder Tower and down Celetna Ulice, the royal walk that led to the famous Old Town Square. When I reached the square I spent some time walking through a springtime market that had been set up in the center. Everything from wooden toys to large spits of meat was on display, and there were even hand-painted Easter eggs for sale.
Not wanting to only do the things I had previously done in Prague, I walked through the Tyn Church for the first time. Then I passed by the famous astronomical clock before wandering through the tiny cobbled side streets that led up to Narodni, the street that marked the border between the old and new towns. On the way I found myself in one of my favorite little squares in Prague.
On one corner I was happy to find a new shop and cafe, Culinaria, that sold everything from imported Italian truffle butter to imported American peanut butter. A deli counter was bursting with soups to salads, and the whole place was new and modern in its design and decor. It was a far cry from the traditional shops in Prague that I knew eight years ago, and it was interesting to see the change.
Speaking of changes, I walked over to my old neighborhood in New Town to see if my favorite restaurants, bars, and shops were still there. The giant Tesco on Narodni Trida was present, although it had been re-branded as My. The metro station behind it was under construction, and the square next to that was being torn up in preparation for a new building. It was sad to see that the small famers’ market where we used to drool over bright red strawberries in the middle of January was no longer there.
But the pizza and gyro shop where we all ate far too many meals was still around, as was the Chinese restaurant where we could get lunch for less than US$1. The pub on the corner of our block had been re-branded as a steak house, and the Czech restaurant across the street had turned into a Cuban bar. Thankfully my accommodation, Jerome House, was still there, as was the pizzeria across the street where we used to buy beer for US$0.15 per half-liter.
As I made my way further into familiar surroundings, memories started jumping out from dark spaces in the back of my mind. I approached one street, suddenly remembering that there was a ballet shop around the corner. When I looked to see if it was true, there was the Griskho sign. It was as if I was holding a faded old photograph in my hands that suddenly regained its color and detail.
Further along the street, I was happy to see that Universal Cafe was still there, and even happier to see that my favorite Czech restaurant in Prague, Hospoda U Novaka, was too. I peered into the window to make sure that everything looked the same, and wondered if my name and those of my friends were still written on the wall.
Turning south, I walked into The Globe, the famous English-language bookstore in Prague. The shop and its cafe were a favorite haunt of mine in the beginning of my time in Prague, but as the Iraq invasion approached, we were told to avoid any obvious American hangouts, including The Globe. It was nice to be able to go back and not have to worry.
Heading east again, I passed by the Lemon Leaf restaurant, another beloved place to eat from my time in Prague. Walking up the hill, I passed Charles Square—which was the ugliest square in the city in the winter, but the prettiest in the spring—and walked over to Jungmannova Ulice where my school was located. Every building on the street was the same, and as I passed each one the voice of my art history teacher flooded my ears with historical facts and architectural details.
At that point I was getting hungry, so I walked along Narodni, past the National Theater, and over to Cafe Slavia. The cafe was a favorite haunt of Czech dissidents like Vaclav Havel during the communist period. I had a good lunch overlooking the river, and while I did so, the haze filling the room disappointingly reminded me that smoking is still allowed in restaurants in Prague.
On the other hand, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that free Wi-Fi had made its way to the city (and was present in almost every cafe and restaurant). I felt the slightest bit old when I remembered that Wi-Fi didn’t exist when I lived there, but it would have made things like calling my family much easier.
After lunch I met my cousin’s group back at the Municipal House for some more Prague sightseeing. We explored the building again, and then went to the House of the Black Madonna, a prime example of Czech cubist architecture from the early 20th century. Once again making myself do new things in Prague, I bought a ticket for the Cubism Museum in the building and explored the small collection while the rest of my group had lunch in the cafe downstairs. The museum was interesting, if a bit small, and covered the major players and works of Czech cubist art and architecture.
After that museum, I returned to Na Prikope and re-visited my favorite museum in Prague: the Mucha Museum. Full of the beautiful Art Nouveau works of one of Prague’s most famous artists, the museum abounded in curvilinear and floral forms. At the end was a video on the life of the artist, after which my tired feet were somewhat revived.
Leaving the museum, I planned to go back to my apartment and take a nap. But I couldn’t resist doing just a little bit more Prague sightseeing. I made my way to Wenceslas Square and over to the Lucerna, a shopping arcade that used to have good restaurants and bars, and which featured a unique sculpture of a man riding an upside down dead horse by the famous Czech artist David Cerny. Sadly, the Lucerna appeared to be in decline, with many of the shop fronts empty and no signs of the life it once had.
I walked out the other end and over to Jungmannova Namesti to find the lonely cubist lamp post that I always loved. I had been inspired to re-visit it by my trip to the museum in the House of the Black Madonna.
At that point I was exhausted again, and headed back to my apartment for an afternoon nap. It didn’t last long, and before I knew it I was walking back down Wenceslas Square, through Old Town Square, and up the impossibly fashionable Parzizka Ulice to Josefov. My cousin’s choir was performing that night at the Church of St Simon and Juda, and I wanted to get there early to walk around the area.
Josefov was Prague’s famous Jewish quarter, complete with an excellent museum that consisted of several historic synagogues and a beautiful old cemetery. I passed by some of the buildings that made up the museum, and then settled in for a coffee at the Franz Kafka Cafe.
The concert was at 7:30, and I met up with my cousin’s friends to get seats in the beautiful church before the show. Prague is famous for its concerts, and when I studied there, half of the students at my school were in a music program. We used to watch them perform, and even went on tour with them to Vienna and Budapest. As such, it was very fitting to have a musical theme to my current trip to Prague, and it was all the better that it involved family.
The running time of this particular concert was only an hour and a half, but the performance included works from a wide array of composers. In one piece my cousin’s husband featured as a guitarist, which was fun to watch. The highlight of the evening came at the end with a performance of Mozart’s Requiem.
After the concert eight of us made our way to a nearby French restaurant called Chez Marcel. We settled into a long table and ordered a feast of onion soup, chevre chaud, entrecote, and foie gras, and dined to the music of a talented accordionist named Mathieu.
The next morning I was awake by 8am and excited to do some Prague sightseeing on the opposite side of the Vltava: Mala Strana and Hradcany. I first stopped for breakfast at The Globe, which, like Cafe Slavia, now had free Wi-Fi, and then made my way across the river to Mala Strana, the Lesser Quarter.
Once again my faded memories crept back to the front of my mind, and the memorial on Petrin Hill, the restaurants along the park, and the music school on a street by the heavily graffitied Lennon Wall were all recalled.
In addition to those memories, new ones were formed. The tiny bridge by the Lennon Wall that overlooked a picturesque water wheel had bars that were covered from top to bottom with pad locks. Small locks, large locks, pink locks, black locks, and every other kind of lock imaginable were there. Next to it was a plaque that presumably explained its existence, but my Czech language skills hadn’t improved enough to make it legible to me.
Continuing on, I walked into the square beneath the Charles Bridge that was known in my study abroad days as being a filming location of the Mission: Impossible movie. Walking north under the bridge, I came across an area that I had never seen before. The streets resembled those on the other side of Mala Strana, and had small shops and hotels dotted throughout. There I stumbled upon the Kafka Museum, which I planned to visit later in the day.
But first it was time for a trip to Prague Castle. I walked back over to the bridge and up through the square by the gorgeous St Nicholas church. Proceeding along the cobbled street, I passed by old buildings, small tourist shops and restaurants, and U Zeleneho Caje, a tea place that I used to love.
Once on Castle Hill, I walked down the tiny Novy Svet, remembering along the way the sheep above one of the doors. Up the hill from there was the Loreta church, and around the corner was the path back to the castle. I walked through the complex and met my cousin and her entourage at a cafe overlooking the city. We had coffee there, then visited the amusingly eccentric toy museum next door.
Like the cubism museum, I had never been to the toy museum in Prague. Inside was everything from dolls to Christmas ornaments to battlefields covered with metal soldiers. On the upper floor there were two entire rooms dedicated to Barbie dolls, and my cousin and her friends pointed out the original Barbie outfits that they owned when they were children.
Leaving the toy museum, we made a quick visit to St Vitus Cathedral, the beautiful church that can be seen from all over Prague. Its dazzling stained glass windows glowed in the afternoon light and provided a stark contrast to the gray stone of the church’s cold interior.
After visiting St Vitus, we walked back down castle hill, doing some more Prague sightseeing, stopping for coffee, strudel, and beer, and visiting several shops along the way. Eventually we found ourselves at the Kafka Museum, which, with its lack of original documents and slightly gimmicky portrayal of the author’s life, was a bit disappointing.
We left the museum feeling exhausted, and went to a nice riverside terrace cafe where we could have a beer. As the evening grew dark, the city’s buildings were floodlit, and we walked across the famous Charles Bridge with all of its statues. River boats zigged and zagged in the water beneath us, and on both sides of the Vltava we had beautiful views of Prague.
We met up with some others from my cousin’s group in Old Town Square, then walked down Celetna Ulice to a Czech restaurant called U Supa that had a gypsy band playing for the evening. We all ordered traditional dishes, and everything from goulash to giant plates of ribs and pork shoulders appeared on the table as the violinist serenaded us with songs like “Que Sera, Sera” and “Hard Day’s Night”.
After dinner I returned to my apartment for one last night of sleep in Prague, and woke up the next morning to catch my train at the Hlavni Nadrazi. As I walked to the station, I regretted not having more time in the city. Despite having covered a lot of ground in my two days in Prague, there was still more that I wanted to see.
There was the beautiful cemetery at Vysehrad, the bizarre Soviet TV tower at Zizkov, the gorgeous Star Hunting Lodge and its surrounding park at White Mountain, the Prague Zoo—which was so inspirational that one of my classmates spent all of his afternoons there and ultimately got a novel published about someone that works at a zoo—and other places that I loved in Prague. That was to say nothing of day trips like Karlovy Vary, Kutna Hora, and other famous towns in the Czech Republic.
But despite the short time that I had for Prague sightseeing, I still had a great weekend there. My memories came back, I had the opportunity to replace my lost photos with newer ones from a far better camera, and I was able to explore areas of the city that were dear to me and new ones that added to my store of knowledge. Above all, I got to spend a lot of my time with family, which was the highlight of the trip.
As my train pulled away from the station, I looked out the window and watched Prague recede into the background. I was on my way to a city that was only two hours away, and that I had always regretted not visiting while I lived there: Dresden. To be continued…
This post appeared in the Lonely Planet Blogsherpa Carnival “Going Back” in April 2011 on No Beaten Path.
This post was supported by Prague Apartments.