Bohemian Rhapsody: Prague
I've always wanted to see Prague in the Winter. Since I came home from Spain in 2013, Prague had topped the list of European destinations that I didn't quite get to during my study abroad. So when I started planning the 2018 Eurotrip, I jumped at the chance to see the Bohemian capital in all its wintertime glory.
Lucky for me, I had a friend living in Madrid who was down to join me for a weekend getaway in Eastern Europe's "City of a Hundred Spires." Friends, meet Katherine (pictured below on the left.) Katherine is a sharp-shootin' straight-talkin' Alabamian who I met a few years back by way of my best friend when I visited her in D.C.
I've been fortunate enough to travel with quite a few friends up to this point, but I have to say, none have been quite as prepared as Katherine. I'm talking really well-prepared, like a whole well-researched-city-guide-typed-up-in-a-Word-Document-before-we-even-set-foot-on-Czech-ground kind of prepared. So for that reason, I didn't do a whole lot of my own research before I left. Sometimes it's nice to just fly blind and let the city make an impression on you, rather than conjuring up a lot of preconceived notions about a place based on guidebooks and travel blogs before you arrive.
We both flew into Prague around dusk and made an easy bus-to-metro connection into the city center. Side note about Vaclav Havel Airport: The Czech have apparently found a way to make their terminal cleaning staff more efficient. Employees travel by roller blades. Seriously. Looking back I think that was a sign that, when it comes to Prague, we should expect the unexpected.
After a late traditional Czech dinner we ended up at an underground bar called Harley's. As the name would suggest, Harley-Davidson decor adorned the brick walls of the long, skinny, windowless room with bars at either end. In between, there was a whole host of interesting characters flung together, everyone from older Czech dudes to an Australian tour group to the girl who enthusiastically told us, "This is the only place in Prague that let's me head-bang!" As her friends ascended the nearest table to dance on, she continued to tell us that, "even the Hard Rock Cafe" wouldn't let her head-bang. (Can you believe the Hard Rock's gaul! The injustice! ...Also can you believe there's a Hard Rock in Prague?)
While Harley's was indeed memorable, what made that first night in Prague unforgettable was actually the walk back to the hostel. It had started to snow by the time we left the bar, somewhere between two and three in the morning, so we decided it would be fun to take a detour through Old Town Square to see it in the snow. Maybe it was because I had come directly from London, where there appeared to be an endless supply of human beings on the streets at any given time, but I really expected to find lots of other people there. When we arrived there was hardly another person in sight, save a few folks crossing different corners of the square on their walks home.
The confluence of the softly falling snow, the up-lit Gothic and Baroque facades lining the square, the Jan Hus statue quietly watching over it all...it was so wonderfully and undeniably Czech. And it was so perfectly still and quiet that I could almost literally hear the little voice inside my head saying, "You're in PRAGUE! In Winter!"
The next two days flew by in a whirlwind. This was, I admit, partially due to the fact that we didn't make it out of the hostel until midday on Friday. What can I say, we just don't bounce back quite the way we used to at 21. Once we did rejoin the land of the living though, a beautiful and clear winter day greeted us. It was the perfect kind of day to make the walk across the Charles Bridge to Prague Castle.
The only downside to the fantastic weather was that apparently every other tourist in Prague that Friday also decided it was a great day to visit the castle. So, joined by throngs of Europeans on vacation, we made our way across the bridge, through the gingerbread-house storefronts of old town, and up a giant stairway to the castle entrance.
The term "castle" is misleading. Prague Castle is more of a walled compound, encompassing a cathedral, courts, halls, royal residences, dungeons, and guards quarters--mostly separate buildings connected by cobblestone lanes and courtyards. Now, I'm not saying I was expecting Cinderella's castle, but I was definitely surprised by the set up.
The nice thing about separate buildings was that it meant there were separate entrances to each venue, and therefore you could pick different ticket options based on which places you wanted to see. It was a "choose your own adventure" kind of situation. We opted for one of the mid-range choices that covered the three major must-dos, or as I like to call the group of them, the ol' Cathedral-Basilica-Palace Trifecta.
We passed the afternoon wandering through the grounds in the winter light, marveling at the stained glass in St. Vitus Cathedral, and reading loads of plaques with Czech history that I've already forgotten.
Afterwards, we explored the surrounding neighborhood of Malá Strana, where we were introduced to the Czech sense of humor, a dry, blunt sarcasm (that I personally find highly enjoyable.) Case in point, we popped into a bookstore to find a Franz Kafka book written in Czech, because every time Katherine visits a new place she picks up a book in that country's language. After perusing the shelves finding plenty of English books and thinking that we must have missed the Czech section, she asked the cashier where she could find books in Czech, to which he replied, "Literally any other bookstore in Prague."
So we left the bookstore laughing, and headed to the nearby Kafka Museum. Just in front of the museum was a fountain, an art installation featuring two male figures peeing. Honestly when Katherine told me about it I thought she might have been duped by some internet troll on a travel website, but it was real. And it moved. I kid you not, the hip sections of the statues swiveled back and forth while the male appendages waved up and down as water streamed out. I can't begin to imagine the cultural significance of this particular piece of art, or how it was possibly approved by the city for public placement, but it's there, and it's hilarious.
Apart from the semi-explicit peeing statue, the majority of our time in Prague up to that point had been dominated by pretty, polished, cultural, and admittedly touristy experiences. I was itching for a grittier, edgier, more underground side of Prague. What I got was quite literally, underground in Prague.
Vzorkovna didn't have any signage on the street level, but it didn't need any, because it was marked by a line out the door probably 40 people deep. A Polish dude in line behind us gave us the inside scoop on the place: at the door, you pay cash to be loaded onto a "chip" which you then tap on a reader at the bar to pay for your drink. We waited close to an hour in line, which was made more bearable by a couple of pilsners we picked up at a market around the corner (no open container laws in Prague, baby!) At one point this huge blue-gray wooly dog walked out of the bar and for a second I wondered if I had actually entered some kind of Kafka-esque alternate reality, but our new Polish friend said this dog was a Vzorkovna regular. In his words, "De owner, he hev dis dog and dey are just going around de place." Reassuring.
When we did finally make it below ground, we found a maze of dimly-lit, smoke-filled rooms covered wall-to-wall in graffiti commemorating various Erasmus groups, lads trips, Contiki tours, or just normal nights out I suppose. The drinks were all served in mason jars, and I couldn't quite decide if it was an economical decision by management, or a deliberate mockery of hipster culture (it seemed in line with Czech humor.) Somewhere, there was a live band, because the set was pumping through the speakers, but we never actually located the room where they were playing. This was the gritty Prague I had been expecting.
I was hoping the giant dog would materialize again, but all that appeared was an American dude that said he was from Seattle, "No way, me too!" I said enthusiastically, but the enthusiasm was short-lived. He soon revealed he graduated from my rival university, WSU, and so, realizing we could never be friends, we bid each other rozloučení (farewell.) I joke, but in all seriousness, it was another one of those wild travel moments in which you realize how small the world really is now.
After that, there was a run-in with a semi-pro Dutch field hockey team that was determined to educate us on the nuances of Techno, and to prove to a very skeptical Katherine that they were a legitimate team. They made a valiant effort, but failed on both fronts. So, none the wiser about Techno, we left and ended the night as one does in Europe, with a spicy kebab.
If you look up Vzorkovna online you'll find endless accounts of terrible service, rude bartenders, and unhelpful staff, and let me tell you, those reviews are one hundred percent true. However, I'm not really sure what people expect from a bar that literally created a system to minimize human interaction at the point of sale. And I have to add that throughout our weekend in Prague, it seemed to me that quality of service was not the highest priority of any Czech dining establishment. So I didn't take it personally, I figured that was just the way things worked in Prague.
I think the best service we got was on the last night at the jazz club around the corner from our hostel. The bartender, a middle-aged Czech dude sporting something between a mullet and the Prince Valiant hairstyle, was pretty attentive. I mean, he was attentive by Czech standards. He kept our glasses full of Pilsner Urquell (which is pretty much all a girl can ask for) and he only left the bar completely unattended once, to go outside for a smoke break. Also, we were the only people in that section of the bar, so that may have had something to do with it...
In any case, it was a great way to end the trip, just me, Katherine, and this bartender sitting in the top portion of the jazz club (where you didn't have to pay cover but could still hear the music--ballin' on a budget y'all!) watching the Olympic men's hockey match between Czech Republic and Canada. Even though we found out halfway through that it was a rerun, we watched with bated breath as they went to overtime and a shootout that the Czech eventually won.
I'm not sure what I was expecting, but Prague was different than I had imagined. I think maybe I expected it to be a little more edgy, but it gave off a very built-for-tourism vibe right from the start. The architectural beauty of the city definitely exceeded my expectations though, at every turn another stunning building appeared and I almost got tired of taking photos of them. So I left with a phone full of photos and a liver full of pilsner by which to remember Prague. Up next was Budapest, and the Bohemian Rhapsody would continue as I headed deeper into the heart of Eastern Europe.