Laundry day (guest appearance by snow)

Today was our second (and last) full day in Prague. There was so much I wanted to fit in today and I ended up doing a grand total of not much. I was too tired. And I figure I never would have fitted everything in anyway so I’ll just have to come back another time. I think I would stay for a week next time. And preferably not when temperatures are reaching record lows.

I slept in, having nothing specific to wake up for, which I’m starting to think of as a real luxury. After slow breakfast, slow shower, and slow Facebooking, Sean and I took some laundry to a laundromat and went to investigate tickets to Munich. Our train leaves at 9.07am tomorrow, but the train station won’t take long to walk to, so I think we’ll be right. The language barrier has been, I think, the most difficult in Prague. Dutch and Czech are much harder to speak than French or German, but everyone in The Netherlands speaks pretty much perfect English, so we didn’t notice it much in Amsterdam. But in Prague, there are not too many fluent English speakers. Which is totally, 100% fine. As I’ve said before, I am staggered at their abilities to cope with such an influx of international languages. In Australia we don’t really have any need to learn much other than English, so we don’t fully appreciate how difficult it must be to deal with tourists who don’t speak our language on a daily basis.

As we walked back from the laundry, it began to snow. It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. It was light snow, it kind of flew at your face and you could feel yourself inhaling the flakes, and they tickled your skin. I’ve not actually been outside while snow has been falling before and it was magic. It was very peaceful. So much so, that when I got home with my laundry, I went for a walk. I bought some earrings (as I’ve decided they will be my staple souvenir from each city) and I bought a cup of mulled wine from a street vendor. And it wasn’t even cold enough to bother me, because I hadn’t been standing in it for three hours like I was the day before. But it was lovely, walking through Prague while it snowed. I tried really hard to imprint as much of it on my memory as I could.

Since I got back I have done a lot of lazing about. We had more of Cara’s spaghetti for dinner and Sean has gone on a beer tour, which I’m sure he will adore. I wasn’t quite feeling energetic enough for a beer tour, so an early night for me because we have an early start tomorrow.

xxxx

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Frozen Czech

This morning we all woke up feeling incredibly refreshed. A good, long sleep can do wonders. We have skylights in our room which lets the sun flood in, but it didn’t even wake us. I eventually got up and Skyped Mum and Dad (and Riley and Brondi) and it was wonderful to catch up after a week. We thought we’d try to catch the 10.45am walking tour, but we ended up taking too long with showers etc and so we went out for a lengthy breakfast. That ended up costing more than dinner last night. Okay, so we learnt from that. European street/supermarket food is incredibly cheap and tasty, but restaurants are a bit of a rip-off, particularly, and obviously, in touristy areas. We went and bought an enormous bunch of groceries to make pasta tonight, with lots of meat, vegetables and bolognese. Then we ducked back into the hostel (where it was WARM) for an hour or so to organise photos etc. We ended up making the 2pm walking tour instead. I can’t recommend these Sandemans tours highly enough. They are so entertaining and informative and it only costs you a tip (or nothing, if you want to be uber stingy and mean).

We met in Old Town Square, where our lovely guide, Jakub, told us that he was actually born in Prague, grew up in London and Kenya, and went to uni in Scotland and Barcelona, before returning to Prague to live. Over the course of this tour, he told us about his family, using his two grandfathers as examples of the impact historical events can have on relationships between people, even if the people involved are from the same place. Having such a personal touch (Jakub was a toddler during the Velvet Revolution, and attended the peaceful protests with his grandfather, much to his grandmother’s chagrin) really enhanced the tour. In the Old Town Square we saw the Tyn Cathedral (with the right column slightly bigger than the left column, to represent Adam and Eve), St Nicholas’ Church, and the place where the old town hall once stood before it was bombed. You can still see the half-formed windows that were blown apart in the explosion. There is the statue dedicated to Jan Hus, the religious reformer, and of course, the Astronomical Clock. The clockmaker was blinded by the government to ensure he could never recreate such a beautiful clock in another city. It is 600 years old, still operates on the same mechanism, and in that time has only become 9 minutes slow. It also won an award for most underwhelming attraction in the world. Hmmm. Well, I thought it was lovely. Jakub did an excellent and very humorous impression of the 23 second long display by the clock statues.

We saw the oldest part of Charles University where the graduations take place, and the theatre where Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni’ was first performed (and Amadeus was filmed). There is an extra creepy statue of a hooded figure out the front to commemorate this (think Ringwraith/Dementor). The statue is hollow and legend has it that it goes all the way down to Hell. If you write down an evil you wish against your enemies, you throw it in the statue and Satan receives it in Hell and will review it, to see if he wants to carry out your wishes. It’s also famous because drunk English tourists seem to think it’s a good idea to get drunk and try to climb in it. They get stuck and the statue has to be cut open to get them out. We saw Wenceslas Square with the Muzeum at the end (where Casino Royale was filmed). There are plaques commemorating students who doused themselves in petrol and set themselves alight in protest of the Soviet invasion of 68-69. We walked along what was once the moat around the city – Powder Tower, that stored gunpowder, is pretty much all that is left of the city walls. It marks the entrance that leads up to Prague Castle and is next to Municipal House. We then walked to the church of St Jakub, where we were told a fascinating story about a thief that broke in to the church and decided to steal the Madonna’s necklace. As soon as he reached for the necklace, the statue of the Madonna came to life and seized his wrist. No matter how the thief repented and pleaded, the statue would not release his arm. The next morning, the priests discovered him and tried to soak his arm in oil and butter to slide it out of the statue’s grip. Nothing worked, and eventually they decided to chop off his arm. The thief freaked out and told them to get rid of the statue’s arm, but the priests feared reprisal from the statue, which had now proven itself alive. So they chopped off the thief’s arm. He screamed and carried on and fell to the ground, armless. As soon as this happened, the statue released the dead arm and went back to cradling Baby Jesus. Don’t mess with Mary. The thief regained consciousness and fled, never to be seen again. The priests hung the hand from the ceiling as a warning to thieves and it remains there to this day. I took a photo of it.

After this we had a break and consumed mulled wine. This is amazingly yummy. It’s basically hot, sweet wine, and goes down like a treat when you are that freezing. Then it was onto the Jewish Quarter. We saw the statue of Kafka, on the shoulders of one of his characters, and the Spanish Synagogue, we saw buildings built with Communist and Cubist architecture, and the Old New Synagogue (the oldest synagogue in Europe). According to legend, the Golem is inside the attic of this synagogue, and no one has been up there in centuries, with the exception of a Nazi soldier. This soldier insisted on seeing the attic, so they opened the door and then shut him inside, locking it. He’s not been seen since. Nearby is the Jewish cemetery. I referred to this earlier in my blog – it is the inspiration for the memorial for the murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. The ground is extremely hilly and the gravestones are very close together because the Jews were not given enough room to bury their dead. So they added more soil and stacked grave upon grave. The only reason the cemetery still exists (as the Nazis tried to wipe out most evidence that Jews had ever occupied any residences in Europe) is because Hitler apparently intended Prague as a future museum for the future extinct race. Bite me, Hitler. Bite me.

We then saw the Pinkas Synagogue, which is now a Holocaust museum. There are 80,000 names and dates, of the 80,000 Czech Jews that died in WW2, carved on a white wall. There is also an exhibition of art done by Jewish children in the Terezin concentration camp. Mrs Freidl Dicker-Brandeis organised it as a sort of therapy to help the children deal with what was happening to them and their families. She told them to draw their happiest memories and hold onto that memory as tight as they could. Friedl Dicker-Brandeis boarded a train to Auschwitz knowing she was headed to certain death, so she hid the drawings in the attic and they were discovered after the camp was liberated and were then put on display. We heard all this from our guide, but we didn’t have time to actually go in and see any of it. This was so disappointing, because it sounds fascinating. We were also told about the humanitarian work of Sir Nicholas Winton, a hero of the Holocaust. Google him, he’s amazing.

We ended the tour in the freezing cold (apparently it was minus 11 but it felt like minus 2000) in front of the Rudolfinum, which is a beautiful concert hall with amazing views of Prague Castle and the Parliament House. Our tour guide told us about a hilarious episode with the President of Prague stealing a pen in front of the world media. Watch the youtube clip, it’s great: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bdobFPqr8c4&feature=fvst

Apparently, after this happened, a Facebook group was started and the people of Czech mailed him 18,000 pens and pencils. Silly, silly man. Here, Jakub told us more about his grandfathers, Dimitri and Josef. For decades, they couldn’t stand to be in the same room as one another, having come from opposite ends of the political spectrum. Despite both being Czech men, neither of them Jews, the country has gone through so many political, social and cultural changes that have seen many people betrayed by those they put their trust in, and many people have been elevated to levels of such status, only to have it snatched away by the arrival of a new ruling power. As a result, it took years and years for Josef and Dimitri to bury the hatchet and the painful memories in order to get along for the sake of their joined families. It was a terribly interesting story, and a great way to put perspective on everything we had learned in the previous three hours.

We were nicely frozen by now, unaware if any of our toes had survived. We headed back to the hostel, taking a train to stay warm, even though it wasn’t a very long walk. We got back and Cara cooked up an amazing spaghetti with the groceries we had bought and now we are chilling in our room. Being so cold is amazingly tiring, but we want to be feeling good for tomorrow, so it will probably be another early night!

Until tomorrow then!

Praha

Last night was a pretty chilled night for our last night in Berlin. We would have loved to have gone out and partied a bit, but we were just so exhausted. Being so cold all the time really takes it out of you. That being said, we spent the evening at the hostel chatting to heaps of awesome people we met, so it wasn’t a wasted evening. This morning we were the Berlin Hauptbahnhof in time to catch a 10.45am train to Prague. It was a direct route, thankfully, and we only moved once. The ride took just under 5 hours, but my goodness, the scenery was beautiful. We trained along a lot of rivers that had beautiful valleys with summer cabins lined up along the river and the edge of the woods. It seriously looked like something out of a fairytale. Training across Europe is such a comfortable way to travel, and it means you see so much of the countryside. We saw people ice-skating on the frozen rivers, and even a herd of wild deer!

When we got into Prague we found our hostel pretty easily and we were all hit with an extreme wave of tiredness. We ended up walking to a pizzeria for dinner and have since all crawled back to our dorm and expect to stay here until we fall asleep. Tomorrow we will do another one of those awesome free walking tours.

xxxx