Up until last week, I’d pretty much forgotten about the first part of “study abroad,” but I’ve had to spend much of the past week working on papers, or essays as they’re referred to here. Luckily, Edinburgh has enough cafes to make it more interesting than just studying in the library, but it’s still consumed much of my life for the past few days. It hasn’t been the most fun in the world, but I guess that’s the price I have to pay for all of the trips I’ve gotten to take.
Two weekends ago, for example, I had the amazing opportunity to visit Prague. Unlike going blindly to Budapest, I knew several people who had visited Prague before and loved it, but all they really said was that it was beautiful. I’m now part of that choir of voices singing the praises of Prague’s beauty, but there’s so much more to it than that. Prague is actually similar to Budapest in its history of communist repression, and the two cities look similar as well, but my experience in Prague was very different.
The first day my friend and I arrived, we were greeted with a massive purple statue of a finger in the middle of the Vltava River. Initially, I thought it was a permanent fixture and that it was an index finger, but I soon found out it was actually a statue of a middle finger that the Czech artist David Cerny had floated down the river just a few days before our arrival. That Saturday, my second day in Prague, was election day for a new government to replace the one that was dissolved this summer, so the finger, which faces the seat of government, represents the frustration of the Czech people with the current corruption and turmoil.
Having learned about David Cerny in my European history class last semester, as he is famous for the “Entropa” statue that mocked the European Union, I felt like I was really witnessing history come alive. Learning that government struggles like this are happening right now in the western world came as somewhat of a shock, though—there’s really so much happening that is completely unknown to me.
We would go on to learn more about Prague’s history the next day, but that afternoon, after a traditional Czech lunch of meat, dumplings, and beer, and wandering around the city’s beautiful streets and bridges, we attempted to visit Prague’s other main attraction—the castle. Overwhelmed by its massive size and tired from traveling, we decided we would just go sit for a while in a pub before going to bed early and starting fresh the next day. Or at least, that’s what we thought we would do—instead, we stumbled upon a medieval tavern that was going to be hosting a medieval show that night.
We decided to stay, and were immediately shown to a table in the low-ceilinged, candlelit, dungeon-like basement, since we had no reservations. About twenty minutes after we ordered our drinks, actors in medieval Bohemian costumes came down at periodic intervals to put on sword-fighting demonstrations (with real swords, two feet from my head) and fire shows, all while playing live medieval music. That was possibly my favorite part of the whole weekend, partially because I love that kind of thing, but partially because we hadn’t planned it at all. It did have a TripAdvisor sticker in the window, so we knew it had to be decent, but unexpectedly finding gems like that tavern is definitely one of the greatest parts of visiting new places.
The next day was full of much more history—we started with a 10:45 am free walking tour and ended up liking our guide, Andrea, so much that we stayed with her for her 2 pm tour of the castle, which made for about eight hours of walking around Prague. It was a fantastic overview of the city because Andrea, a 40-something Slovakian woman who has lived in the Czech Republic for several years and has both Czech and Slovak parents and grandparents, lived through much of what happened in recent Czech history. On the free tour in the morning, Andrea told us all about how she lived under communism, how she fondly remembers the first democratic president, and how she experienced the peaceful separation of the Czech Republic and Slovakia. She also told us that, in the countryside, many people still think life was better under communism and thus the party still has a significant hold over voters (it got 15% of the vote in the election last week.) They even have a giant metronome where a statue of Stalin used to exist though, to mark the time lost during communism, so it seems that it most people are trying to move past this part of Prague’s history. According to Andrea, although life was technically better because everything was taken care of, it came at the price of not thinking, which, as she said, isn’t worth it. That’s the kind of information we never could have gotten from a guidebook, which made looking at all of the pretty sights even more fascinating.
After the morning of walking around the west side of the city, where we saw multiple churches, the Jewish Quarter, and the site of the two defenestrations of Prague, we joined Andrea’s afternoon tour of the Prague Castle. The entire castle complex takes about twenty minutes just to walk from one end to the other, so the tour took another three hours or so, but it was full of gorgeous churches, views of the city, and stories of the corrupt Czech government. Outside of St. Vitus Cathedral, the main attraction in the castle itself, Andrea told us in an ironically hushed voice about the hilarious story of the Czech president stealing a pen from an international conference, which she said is indicative of their inability to function as a government. Again, a story, and commentary, we never would have gotten from a guidebook. To close out the night, we had dinner at a combination monastery/brewery that boasts the award for the best beer in the Czech Republic for dinner, and it definitely deserved the title.
We were too tired the next day to do much, but we hit the remaining spots we didn’t get to thoroughly see the day before—the Spanish Synagogue and Wenceslas Square, especially. Like Budapest, the Jewish history in Prague is gruesome; unlike Budapest, though, it’s commemorated in many parts of the city, and Andrea spoke about it on our tour. I’ve never been in a synagogue, but the one in Prague was beautiful, and I’m glad I got to experience that part of the city’s history. Wenceslas Square is famous for another part of Prague’s history—Jan Palach, a student during the Prague Spring in 1969, set himself on fire there to protest the Soviet invasion. Seeing his gravestone, and the gravestone of Jan Zajíc who also set himself on fire, was really sobering—they were younger than I am now when they martyred themselves. Having learned about Jan Palach in that same history class last semester, seeing it in person was even more amazing.
Of course, we couldn’t leave Prague without seeing the astronomical clock—the oldest functioning one in the world, which has put on a show every hour since 1410. The officials in Prague loved the clock so much, apparently, they wanted to make sure the clockmaker would never make another for any other city and thus poked out his eyes and cut out his tongue; now, spectators are so unimpressed with the ten-second or so performance that it has to be supplemented with people playing trumpets live. Still, the clock was beautiful, and being in the presence of anything that old is always a fascinating experience.
Overall, Prague was amazing, just like everyone said it would be. Interestingly, some even say it looks like Edinburgh, but I have to say I disagree. The two cities are so culturally different that it’s hard for me to compare them, even if some of the streets and buildings do have the same old stone construction. This monument, for example, looks exactly like one on Princes Street:
Nevertheless, Prague was amazing, and, according to Andrea, Prague never really lets you go. In other words, I’ll be back someday.