I arrive in Prague off the 19:10 train and feel its closeness already: a green area of grass growing alongside the length of the station greets travelers right out of the one set of front doors (no multiple entry/exit doors which can lead a new comer into a puzzling maze of city streets), dotted with food stands, locals out for a stroll and the ubiquitous homeless of every city. I follow directions to my hostel and take note of shop signs and placards, bulletins and posters all in a language of which I know nothing, and of the architecture, a wonderful aesthetic of curves and columns, brillliant colors silenced by the grey smear of pollution.
People are everywhere, there is an electric air to the feel and pulse of the city, and although I’ve never been to Las Vegas proper, I will take an uninformed leap here and liken this city to it based on the myriad groups of world citizens, who canvass the pedestrian zones with cups and bottles in hand, dance their way from one cobblestone to another, sing in any language loudly and proudly through the alleys and squares, and shed any reservations or inhibitions that may have arrived with.
I arrive likewise at my hostel and it is discovered that I booked for the following day, not for tonight, and as they have no rooms, I have to find another hostel through my app, which is no problem at all. I find and book a bed at the Old Prague Hostel, north of Old Town Square, about 12 minute walk. So off I go, enjoying the food stands, the ice cream stands, the jovial nature of random people, and am checked in within a half an hour. The dorm room looks out onto a street with a disco and a beat so profound I can only applaud the carefree, reckless, and yet necessarily responsible young people of today, who will have the weight of the world on their shoulders all too soon. Dance on!, I think to myself, the future is waiting once they leave the gates of Prague. The only other way to feel one’s youth, besides teaching grade or high school, must be to come to Prague, or a similar Eastern European city, where the ties to a proper and regulated Brussels is less enforced. The locks to the safe in the room are temperamental, and not trusting their flimsy nature, I take my few belongings with me, back out to the streets; not wanting to eat late, I enter a mini mart and buy a can of pear mango cidre and follow the crowds to Old Town Square, where the Tyn Church is illuminated and groups of people are just sitting on the cobblestone square with their drinks and food. At first I think everyone must be waiting for a giant city pub crawl, but on second thought, they’re probably waiting to meet other people, people they’ve just found on an app, or people they’ve known for a while, first dates, marriage proposals, breakups, meet ups, people wanting to get lucky, its all happening here. I sit down on the curb as well, facing the Tyn church, and enjoy my drink. I am reminded of the visit to Tours during the Summer Solstice- a similar living-in-the-shared-moment type of joy that has escaped me for many years.
Towards 10:30 I decide to walk back, slowly browsing through shops and noticing the gold plated crystal glassware, the cashmere scarves – for 200 Czech koruna? That’s only 8 Euros! The disco is throbbing on, and I fall asleep in an empty dorm (the two girls from New Jersey and Boston are out somewhere) with the life below on the streets keeping me company in vicariously experiencing the joy and possibilities of a young generation.
And Dance on! they did – I wake from a good night’s sleep, undisturbed, to a dawn sky and the persistent disco beat – but not only that – people are still laughing, singing and shouting their way across Prague. Good for them, I think – just give me some coffee. I make my way to the kitchen downstairs, pour a strong one, and begin to write….
At 7:30 am four handsome young French guys come into the kitchen for coffee and one joins me at the table. We strike up a conversation: They come from Strasbourg to have a bachelor’s party, he and “the guy sitting over there to the left of the one getting married” are pastry bakers, they drove 6 hours to get here, they came in at 4:30 and will sleep for a bit before heading back out for one more day of party; his girlfriend, a moscovite, is a travel agent, he wants her to move to Strasbourg, and come to the wedding, but the visa thing is such a hassle…don’t I know it. His friends leave to sleep, and he throws them the key; soon he leaves as well, wishing me a good day and travels. I don’t think I got in a word about myself.
At 8:00 am on the dot the jack knife cuts into the cement for the construction project downstairs. Imagine, if you will, the Dance On! hangovers dealing with that. My cue to head on out!
The streets are pleasantly deserted, at least until ten; by then the alleys and boulevards are scented with a sweet doughy bread that vendors use to fill with ice cream, the charcoal of grills firing up and roasting meat, the pungent odor of beer spilling out from taverns, laced with tobacco that made its way back in from outside seating, the rising heat upon the tourists who scan the tour times and museum hours to be first in line.
I decide on a walking tour myself, and at 11:15 walk to the designated area where a coach takes 16 other English speakers up to the Castle grounds. Along the way, we learn of much disappointment: The state Opera building, the National Museum, and the Astronomical Clock are all closed and undergoing construction. The reasons for these are two-fold: Prague needs to spend the money it gets from the EU, and the Czech Republic’s 100 years of Independence from the Austrian Empire is this year, and they hope to be finished with it all by the end of August.
The castle grounds are enormous: with 45 hectares, it is the largest castle complex in the world, says our guide Elena (and she pronounces it just like we do!), who originally comes from St. Petersburg but has been living in Prague for 15 years teaching history. We need to go through scanners and have our bags checked, because the Czech president has is offices and home in these grounds, and as the flag is up, is in residence.
She hurries us through some courtyards so we can see a changing of the guards, which is about as interesting as feeding time at the zoo. After this march out of one courtyard and into another, she takes us to a panoramic viewing area, and then down to the Charles Bridge. All along the way she tells of some tidbits: the castle history and remodeling; the small Devil’s Bridge underneath the Charles Bridge, Charles the IV’s influence on Prague, the many different quarters of Prague which only came together as one city after 1922; the Lesser Quarter, which is older than Old Town, but has been remodeled and where the diplomats live, the tower next to the spire of St. Nicholas Church in the Lesser Quarter where the Czech version of the KGB kept an eye and ear on everybody during the communist period (how much quieter this place must have been back then, I muse); the Old Town where the universities and high schools were located, and the New Town, which is the economic and business hub of Prague; the cobblestone streets are protected by UNESCO, so ladies, leave the heals at home. We end up back at Old Town, where the tour ends.
Above: St. Vitus Cathedral, commissioned by Charles IV in the 1300s, and finally completed 600 years later, by 1960.
Above: the panoramic view from the castle grounds, with St. Nicholas of the Lesser Quarter (an exact, but smaller version of this church is located in Old Town because of a competition between the quarters, and is known as St. Nicholas of the Old Town)
Above: along the Charles Bridge.
Above: the gates to the Lesser Quarter from the Charles Bridge; looking down to Devil’s Bridge, the name gotten from a lady who commissioned an artist to paint pictures of 7 devils on her house walls; he painted only 6, telling her she was the 7th.)
I head to the Jewish quarter, which is now lined with exclusive shops like Prada and Bulgari but which once housed thousands in a small walled ghetto. Here they cash in on the souvenir shops as well, but you can see remnants of Judaism on buildings and sidewalks. Unfortunately, tickets are required for synagogue entrance and well as for the Old Jewish Cemetary, and at this point I’m fading fast.
I walk back in the direction of my hostel and buy a grilled sausage that I see people eating everywhere and sit on a bench in Old Town Square next to the garden of flowers.To me, Prague has been a cacophony of sights, smells, and sounds that runs on overtime. The tour guide said tourist season is all year round now, and besides sightseeing, shopping, eating, and drinking, which becomes limiting after a few hours, not much more can be achieved as a tourist in one and a half days. The heat today brings me back to the hostel, where I enjoy a cup of tea, the peace of an empty room with its own shower and toilet, and the freedom to lay on the floor and put my legs up the wall.