Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Holiday Travels, Part 6: A Very UnChristmasy Christmas in Prague

[Not proofread yet. Apologies to early readers.]

So, I arrived at the central train station in Prague around 9:30 in the morning on Christmas Eve. The past eighteen hours or so had completely sucked, I was tired and stressed out, and I didn't speak any Czech. I had directions to my hostel, but first I wandered around the station for a long time, 1) looking for an ATM, 2) buying breakfast from a shop where the cashier looked extremely displeased about the large bill I was using for my very small purchase, not to mention my silence, and 3) trying to figure out how the &^%! to get out of the train station. When I eventually succeeded, I stood outside looking around, looking at my directions, and looking around again for a long time before figuring out that the directions were confusing, and in fact I needed to get on the metro inside the train station. So I went back down and spent a while looking for that. Then I spent a while staring at the old-fashioned (coins only, and you push a button next to the kind of ticket you want) ticket machines trying to figure out what I needed.

The metro was as old and shabby looking as its ticket machines promised. I emerged from it, two or three stops away, at a station where I could transfer to the tram for the rest of my ride to the hostel. I walked outside to find the tram and discovered that we were more or less under the highway. Everything in sight was dirty and run-down and made of concrete and covered in graffiti. Welcome to Eastern Europe.

The hostel, called Sir Toby's*, was a block away from the tram stop, in a newer neighborhood across the river from the city centre, a neighborhood with wide streets laid out in a grid pattern, boxy buildings with large windows, and a noticeable absence of both greenery and people. I had heard that this part of the city was sort of an artsy, up-and-coming area, popular with young people. It looked empty and quiet and, if not quite sketchy, then at least tired. It looked like what it is--a post-communist city in a recession. And it looked sad.

I was not in love. I was unimpressed and sleep-deprived and starting to wish I were in Bruges with my friends and all the canals and medievalyness.

My welcome at the hostel was encouraging. It was an old building, but an attractive one. The lobby was cozy and cheerful, with mismatched furniture and maps everywhere and wood paneled walls. The front desk attendant spoke to me in excellent English, which was a relief, and, after checking me in and giving me a map, patiently told me everything I could possibly need to know about the place without my having to ask any questions. I went down to lock my things up in the luggage room, and then sat in the adorable basement pub, where a handful of other guests were still eating breakfast, to drink the iced coffee I'd bought at the station and send emails to my dad and to Sam and Jimena to let them all know where I was. Encouraged, caffeinated, and determined that being in Prague must be better than getting there had been, I eventually worked up the energy to venture outside.

Side note: Outside was, and continued to be for the remainder of my stay, ridiculously freaking cold. Maybe I'm just spoiled, living in Brittany, because it rained while I was there, which obviously means it can't actually even have been below freezing, but there were times when it seemed like the coldest place I'd ever been (other than northern Ohio in January, which at this point still takes the prize). It was terrible. I think Christmas Day was the worst, but it was cold the whole time. And there wasn't even any snow to make up for it. I had been so sure that if there was anywhere I wanted to go where I could be sure of a white Christmas, Prague was it. I didn't even see frost.

Anyway, I decided to walk downtown, even though it promised to take quite a while. Not far from the hostel I passed a marketplace, which I assumed from the giant bull** statues on either side of the entrance was once a livestock market. Now it's just a typical food and stuff market, and it was pretty quiet at midday on Christmas Eve, but there were a few stalls open, so I wandered through and wound up buying a purse from an East Asian guy who seemed just as happy as I was to communicate in English instead of Czech.

I then walked along the river, and across the river, and beside the highway for a moment, and eventually found my way into the city centre, where I promptly lost all sense of where I was. (This became a recurring theme over the next couple of days.) I believe I have mentioned medieval street layouts a time or two. The heart of Prague is gloriously medieval and therefore impossible to navigate without a map (and sometimes even with one). It is a maze of narrow streets, almost none of which follow straight lines for more than a block or two at a time or begin and end at what would seem like logical places. "Blocks" are not rectangular, intersections are rarely at right angles, and the lines between "street" and "alley" and "walkway" are ill-defined at best. And you are surrounded by tall buildings at all times, which gives the sense of being an a kind of tunnel and also makes it completely impossible to see anything else around you. Even extremely tall landmarks only a few hundred meters away are blocked out by the row of four or five story houses right in front of you. You could be only just street over from your very prominent destination and never have a clue. It's a recipe for claustrophobia as much as for disorientation.

By sheer luck, or perhaps the fact that all roads lead eventually to the very heart of a city, I fairly quickly stumbled into Old Town Square, essentially THE center of Prague, in history and spirit if not in modern geography. There was a huge Christmas market there--complete with a stage and an giant chess set made of Christmas lights, along with the usual treats and souvenirs--and an astonishing crowd of people considering it was Christmas Eve in a country where that, rather than Christmas Day, is the big holiday.  Every single building around the square is gorgeous, so I wandered around gawking and taking pictures, then I wandered through the market and bought a sausage and some mulled wine, and then I wandered around taking more pictures until it was time for the afternoon's free walking tour.*** There is far too much in Prague for a three hour walking tour to cover it all, and it was already dark for the last third of it, so it was hard to see some stuff and impossible to take pictures, but all the same, we covered a lot. It didn't really help me to learn my way around, but I learned some really cool stories along the way. Some examples:

* This one's actually true: Part of Amadeus was filmed in the old opera in Prague because it basically hasn't changed since Mozart conducted there.
* The golem ( is a neat story in any version. In the one I heard on the tour, the rabbi was in the middle of the Sabbath prayer service when he was called out to deactivate the rampaging golem, and since you're not supposed to interrupt the prayers once you've started, and he had to to save people's lives, he started the service over again once the golem was taken care of. And to this day in that synagogue, the prayers are still said twice. Also, centuries later, a Nazi officer heard about the golem and boasted about going up to the attic of the synagogue where it was supposedly kept, and he went up and disappeared and was never heard from again. The Jewish Quarter is full of great stories, actually. And not all about the golem. There's a funny story about the name of the New Old Synagogue, for example, but I've forgotten what it was now. I'm sure it involved a mistranslation at some point. Also, the old Jewish cemetery was built up to make some absurd number of levels of graves, all stacked on top of one another, because the city wouldn't allow them to expand it outwards.
* One old church has a mummified arm hanging from the ceiling. (That part is true; the legend behind it I'm not sure about.) The story: There was once a statue of the Virgin wearing a beautiful jeweled necklace, and one night a thief came to try to steal the necklace, but when he touched it, the statue's arm grabbed his and wouldn't let go. When the priest came in the next morning, the thief confessed and begged him for help, but the only way the priest could see to free him was to cut off his arm. Once the arm was severed, the statue let go of it, and the priest kept it and hung it up as a warning to future thieves. (It would seem that the Czech Republic in general is totally okay with gore and death and the generally gruesome and morbid.)
* The maker of the famous astrological clock was blinded after he finished it, to ensure that no other city would ever have one like it. His revenge was to feel around and remove an essential part so that the clock would stop working. It took anywhere from months to a hundred years for someone else to figure out how to fix it, depending on who's telling the story.

There are plenty more where those came from. Prague is fascinating. It's also ridiculously beautiful. The buildings are all ornately decorated with sculpture and painted designs. Everything is brightly colored. There are statues everywhere you look. Even the sidewalks are beautiful--half of them have black and white mosaic designs, and I'm not sure I saw any two alike.

Anyway, by the time the tour was over, it was dark and drizzling and approaching dinner time, and a sensible person would have ended the day on a high note and gone home then. For no particular reason, I opted to walk back to the market in Old Town Square, and then discovered I didn't actually know where to get the tram back to the hostel. In the end I walked back to where we'd ended the tour and found the nearest tram stop, figuring as long as it was headed in the right direction I could figure it out. Then I discovered I didn't know where to obtain a ticket for the tram. There are not machines at every stop, or even most stops, which seems idiotic, and you can't buy them on the tram, and I hadn't had the foresight to buy any from the front desk at the hostel before I left. Not finding any at the stop where I was, I wandered across the nearest bridge to another stop to see if there were any machines there. There weren't, but I figured out there was a metro stop there, too, and went down there to buy a ticket. Then I came back out and waited for the tram. Several trams came by, but none that were going the direction I wanted. I waited. And waited and waited and waited. No tram. After almost an hour, I gave up and went back to the metro, and took it to the same place I'd gotten the tram (a different tram) that morning, which was a very roundabout way of doing things but seemed better than standing around in the cold or wandering around an unfamiliar city in the dark. I had to change metro lines, and had to wait a ridiculously long time for the second train. I hoped that the lack of public transportation in Prague was due to the holiday and not a constant thing.

So I eventually got to the other stop, and then I waited for that tram for a while. It didn't come either.

Eventually, I gave up and walked, following the tram line back to the route I'd taken when I walked that morning.

At that point, I was tired, and cold, and late for dinner (the hostel was providing a free Christmas dinner to all its guests, presumably at least in part because the city was shutting down for the night), and deeply frustrated. None of these were good things to feel on Christmas Eve, when I was also lonely and homesick to begin with. When I finally got back to the hostel and went down to the pub, it was insanely crowded, and I was not in the mood to socialize with strangers, so, unable to find a quiet corner to hole up in, I ended up taking a plate upstairs to my room and enjoying my chicken schnitzel and potato salad and chocolate cake in silence and self-pity.

Christmas Day was better. I went back to Old Town Square and the market first thing that morning and had a traditional Czech pastry rolled in cinnamons and almonds for breakfast. Around lunchtime I met up with Ali, the English assistant in Guingamp that I traveled from Paris with when we first arrived in France, and a friend of hers who's an assistant in the east of France, near Lyon. They introduced me to Bohemia Bagel, an English-speaking BAGEL SHOP in the middle of Prague. Apparently it's a big expat hangout, and how could it not be? Real live bagels, for crying out loud. While we were eating, we remembered it was Christmas. It didn't feel like Christmas for anyone. And it never did really feel like Christmas, even that night when I went back to the hostel and Skyped with my parents and sister. There just wasn't anything about it that's normally a part of Christmas for me. It was a good day, certainly, I just sort of feel like I skipped over Christmas entirely.

That afternoon we went on another walking tour, this time of the castle district. Ali and Shayna had gone on a tour with this company before I arrived in Prague but hadn't been able to see the castle because Vaclav Havel was lying in state at the time, so they'd been told they could come back another day to do that part. My tour the day before hadn't gone anywhere near the castle, so I tagged along as well. I should clarify here that Prague's "castle" is not what you're probably thinking based on the term. It's not medieval, and the only towers are on St. Vitus' Cathedral. Most of the castle complex is seventeenth or eighteenth century, I think. Some of it might be a bit earlier, but only a few small pieces of it are actually from the Middle Ages, so it doesn't look like what you usually think of as a castle. Kind of like Dublin Castle in that regard. It's very very pretty, though. Very big and elegant. And St. Vitus' Cathedral is amazing. It's definitely the biggest church in Prague; I don't know for sure if it's the biggest in the country, but it must be close. And it's stunning. Unfortunately, you have to pay to go beyond standing in the back near the doors, so I didn't get to see much of it. All the same, it was breathtaking. I think Czech cathedrals might be even prettier than French cathedrals. The architecture is fairly similar (at least to my untrained eye), but Czech churches are full of painted murals, and there's something about Czech stained glass that I think is more beautiful than French stained glass. It's more delicate, somehow. Less abstract.

Anyway, other highlights of the castle complex included the life-size straw nativity scene outside the cathedral, the assortment of guards in fuzzy hats who were trying not to smile, and (on a creepy note) the large sculptures of people murdering each other on either side of the entrance. I'm not sure what that was about. I assume there is symbolism involved that was lost on us, but to me it just looked violent and disturbing. But I say again, the Czech seem to be pretty nonchalant about the darker side of life.

After the tour, we walked around the castle district for a bit (absinthe ice cream, anyone?) and then had coffee in a nice café on the way back to the river, which we crossed on Charles Bridge. Charles Bridge is another of Prague's major landmarks. It's a very old, very wide pedestrian bridge lined on both sides with an assortment of sculptures. There are various stories about some of them, and a great deal of confusion about exactly which one you're supposed to touch for good luck, and exactly how you're supposed to touch it to make sure it is indeed good luck and not bad. It was kind of hard to fully appreciate some of the sculptures in the dark (let alone take pictures), but Prague is so beautiful at night it was hard to mind.

* Despite its less-than-ideal location, I would highly recommend Sir Toby's to other travelers. It's super nice, has everything you need (including cheap laundry facilities!), the staff are great and all some level of English-speaking, the pub is awesome and even serves food, and it seemed like a really good place for mingling. I only had brief conversations with some of my fellow guests, but there was a very social atmosphere and I saw some people really making new friends in the pub in the evenings. The other big downside besides location was that you have to pay for breakfast, and breakfast starts weirdly late, which was fine over the holidays but might have been irritating to me otherwise. That said, breakfast is very much worth the price and starting late means it's available until almost lunchtime, so if you are prone to sleeping in, you're still set.
** Definitely bulls. Definitely not steers.
*** Same company I went with in Dublin and Amsterdam. Not the best tour of the three by any means, but definitely worthwhile. Probably would have been more enjoyable if it hadn't been so bloody cold once it got dark (which was really early--like 4/4:30 p.m.).

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