The journey from Venice to Prague was a rather insane one, as far as travel stories go, though it would later turn out to be quite ordinary compared to what lay in my future . The most feasible and least expensive way of getting from one to the other was to actually transfer flights in London Stansted, which, I realise, makes no sense from a geographic perspective. Katherine and I flew out of Venice on the same day, but her flight was in the morning and mine was late at night. Thinking that the airport would be able to entertain me for a significant amount of time, I arrived at Treviso Airport with something close to ten hours to kill. As it turned out, Treviso is quite small -- it only had six gates -- and the lone duty free shop was beyond security, which Ryanair does not let customers pass through until two hours before departure. How I ever managed to waste that much time sitting on an uncomfortable metal bench that day, I am not sure. After finally arriving at Stansted, I still had to go through customs and, while waiting in line, silently fumed about the UK insisting on maintaining border control even for those passengers arriving from within the European Union. But that is neither here nor there. It was past midnight when I met Rachel in the waiting area, around one when I curled up on a bench and fell asleep, and approximately three when I woke up and we made our way to our gate, unspeakably excited -- translation: we were altogether very exhausted -- for our 6:25am flight to Prague. Needless to say, we both spent the entirety of the flight in a state of pure unconsciousness, though I was awake at least long enough to acknowledge the clear superiority of EasyJet to Ryanair.
Day one in Prague was spent in a haze of sleep deprivation. We successfully navigated to the our hostel, the Czech Inn -- catch the pun? -- and sorted out matters vis-à-vis Robin. We were supposed to meet her later that day, but her passport and other important earthly possession had been stole while she was in Barcelona. Consequently, she remained in Spain for longer than expected, sorting this matter out. As for Rachel and me, we ventured into Prague's Old Town (Staré Město in the curious, charming, and thoroughly incomprehensible Czech language) to see the much-anticipated Museum of Communism. The Museum of Communism is a privately owned museum located on Prague's main shopping street, above the city's largest McDonald's, and in the same building as a casino.
Irony, I hear, is a cherished Czech tradition.
The museum recounted the tragic story of the joint Nazi and Soviet (but mostly Soviet, simply due to the USSR's lengthier presence) trampling underfoot of Eastern Europe's only competently democratic state, which was then Czechoslovakia, of course. The story undoubtedly had a slant -- one exhibit memorably described Leonid Brezhnev as an "apathetic wreck," which, while true, is perhaps harsher phrasing than what a more objective authority might have used -- but such a slant does serve to highlight the decidedly unpalatable aspects of almost half a century of Communist rule.
Our historical appetite sated, we enjoyed an afternoon concert at the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, who performed Debussy's Trois Nocturnes and a symphony by a Czech composer whose name escapes me at the moment. Alas, we were so tired that we both nodded off at some point during the performance. A nap at the hostel, followed by a hearty dinner of traditional Czech goulash and an early night, was very much in order.
The next morning, when we felt much less zombie-like, we took the tram to the city's premier attraction, Prague Castle, which is located on in the Lesser Town (Malá Strana) on the opposite site of the Vlatava, the river that splits Prague in two. Lesser Town is a hillier, quieter place than Old and New Town and has more beautiful red rooftops than can be counted.
Like the Tower of London, Prague Castle contains a number of sites of interest. The castle itself, an embodiment of the ideal of the dark, dank, stone fortress of medieval imaginings rather than the Rococo flourishes of the monarchical golden age, was the political seat of the Bohemian kingdom, and, here, it is appropriate to editorialise briefly about the inescapable presence of history of Prague. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which I was conveniently reading while travelling through Eastern Europe, Milan Kundera writes:
In 1618, the Czech estates took courage and vented their ire on the emperor reigning in Vienna by pitching two of his high officials out of a window in the Prague Castle. Their defiance led to the Thirty Years' War, which in turn led to the almost complete destruction of the Czech nation. Should the Czechs have shown more caution than courage? The answer may seem simple; it is not.
Three hundred and twenty years later, after the Munich Conference of 1938, the entire world decided to sacrifice the Czechs' nation to Hitler. Should the Czechs have tried to stand up to a power eight times their size? In contrast to 1618, they opted for caution. Their capitulation led to the Second World War, which in turn led to the forfeit of their nation's freedom for decades or even centuries. Should they have shown more courage than caution? What should they have done?
When thinking about European history, it is too easy to forget that, centuries ago, the political weight of the continent was shifted much more to the east. Prague Castle is an artefact of that time, and the exhibits within it made clear that, once upon a time, Bohemia, even after its incorporation into the Hapsburg domains, was as much a serious player in European diplomatic and political intrigue as, say, France. There was very much the sense in Prague that the Czechs had their past and their glory stolen from them, an impression deepened after the events of the twentieth century. Indeed, while strolling around its central districts, I noticed that there are few, if any, outward signs of the German and Soviet occupations. It was as if those decades were but a parenthesis: Prague (and, by extension, the Czech Republic), the city seems to say, belongs to that nebulously defined place called Europe, as it always has.
But, anyway. Prague Castle:
That last picture, by the way, is a picture of the room in which the Defenestration of Prague occurred. Not sure if that is the exact window, though!
Also in the courtyard of Prague Castle was St. Vitus Cathedral, a glorious Gothic creation that was, as far as churches go, love at first sight.
The view from Prague Castle was, to be expected, also beautiful.
It was quite late in the afternoon when we made our way down from the castle and over to the Vlatava, where we crossed the Charles Bridge into Old Town. Named after King Charles IV, who presided over the golden age of Bohemia, the bridge is a rather impressive structure lined with statues on either side and features imposing gates on both ends.
Prague Castle and Lesser Town, as seen from the Charles Bridge:
Old Town, while being rather touristy throughout, is a beautiful district, perfect for strolling around, window shopping, and people watching.
Meanwhile, Rachel and I each enjoyed a trdelník, a traditional Czech pastry covered in sugar and walnuts. Most delicious.
We also visited Wenceslas Square, famous for being the site of the Prague Spring protests in 1968. These days, the only reminder of them is a small memorial to the two Czech students who committed suicide via self-immolation to protest the Soviet invasion of their country.
Our third day in Prague was the day of awesome museums. In the morning, we went to the Mucha Museum, which Katherine had mentioned when she recounted her travels in Prague. Although I did not know much about Alphonse Mucha, the iconic Art Nouveau artist, going into the museum, I left it with an appreciation of not only his career as an illustrator and graphic artist in Paris, where he attained great fame, but also of his role in the development and promotion of Czech nationalism. It turns out Mucha was a more significant artist than I had thought him to be, which is to say that the museum certainly accomplished its aim.
In the afternoon, we visited what ended up being perhaps the best museum I have ever seen: the Lobkowicz Collections.
Rachel and I had passed it the day before while we were leaving Prague Castle, and, after reading glowing reviews of it on TripAdvisor.com, we decided to hand over the Czech crowns needed for admission. The House of Lobkowicz is one of the oldest noble families from the former Bohemian kingdom -- although, of course, Czechoslovakia abolished noble titles upon its establishment -- and its vast properties and accumulated possessions were confiscated twice, first by the Nazis and then by the Communists, forcing the family into exile. After 1989, they were able to return to their ancestral homeland and reclaim their belongings, a selection of which is now on display to the public in their former palace in Prague.
The Lobkowicz Collections proved to be so much more than, well, a pile of stuff that happens to belong to a rich and prominent family. Rather, they tell the story of the history of Europe through the story of the Lobkowicz family with an audioguide narrated by living members of the family and the objects on display. For instance: the two Catholic governors who were defenestrated in 1618 apparently sought shelter and protection in the Lobkowicz Palace after surviving their fall. Family storytelling has it that Polyxena von Perstejn, mistress of the house, hid them under her skirts from their pursuers. Various Lobkowicz princes served as advisors to Hapsburg emperors through the ages, but the 7th Prince Lobkowicz was one of Ludwig van Beethoven's most notable benefactors. Beethoven, as all music history devotees know, intended to dedicate his third symphony ("Eroica") to Napoleon until Le Petit Corporal declared himself emperor. What is less know is that this revolutionary opus was instead dedicated to none other than, yes, the 7th Prince Lobkowicz! As a result of this fruitful relationship between composer and patron, the House of Lobkowicz owns original performance (!) and first editions of Beethoven's third, fourth, and fifth (!) symphonies, in addition to Mozart's arrangement of Handel's Messiah written in his own (!) hand. Surely the parenthetical exclamation points indicate the giddiness on my part that these musical relics induced. Rachel can surely attest to the fact that we stood utterly slack-jawed before these manuscripts for something approaching an age.
Having rambled enough, I shall simply conclude by saying -- never mind Prague, I do believe the Lobkowicz Collections were one of the highlights of my entire year in Europe.
We remained in Lesser Town for the remainder of the afternoon. We took a turn around the Church of St. Nicholas, which was a dose of Baroque splendour to balance out St. Vitus Cathedral from the day before.
My favourite part of St. Nicholas were the doodlings, dating back to the nineteenth century, etched into the railing of the upstairs gallery.
Finally, we paid a visit to the Lennon Wall -- not the "Lenin Wall," which is what I first thought it was. The wall used to be a living canvas for political dissidence. These days, it seems more an excuse for acceptable public defacement of Prague, but it remains an impressive sight with its clash of incongruous neon colours.
At this point, the weather became unacceptably atrocious -- this would become a reoccurring them during this Eastern European extravaganza -- so we called it a day and returned to the Czech Inn to enjoy one last night in Prague.