Cities / Towns Visited: 29
Countries Visited: 11
Steps Taken Today: 14,739
Steps Taken Around the World: 1,157,877
We awoke with the sun streaming in around the somewhat useless curtains, and lifting our heads from our lumpy pillows we rose to try and make the most of the day. After trudging downstairs to indulge in the free hostel breakfast (it was a bit hit and miss, the juice was more like water which had once brushed past fruit at a supermarket, but they has bacon and, albeit overcooked, eggs), we headed out.
We had decided that the best way to get our bearings in our new city was to take a free walking tour of the old town and Jewish Quarter, that we had found online while in the research stage of our trip. After wandering close to the meeting point and admiring the architecture of the municipal hall and the powder tower, our guide finally arrived wielding his blue umbrella with clouds. He was perky and enthusiastic, and although we are not morning people and we were still waking up, there was something contagious about the mix of his excitable demeanour and the warm morning sunshine that just made you happy. The tour took us past many of the most well knows sights, from the towering spires of the cathedrals, to the sprawling central market square, and from the sombre Jewish Quarter, to the peaceful flowing Vltava river; but also down some of the more ‘off the beaten track’ roads. Our guide was insightful, and gave us plenty of information on the Czech Republic, and its history; from being a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, to being caught between German and Austria during both world wars, to its Nazi occupation, and Russian communist rule, all the way up to its amicable separation from Slovakia less than thirty years ago. Despite the country’s checkered and often horrific past (especially in relation to the Jewish residents, a large portion of whom were murdered by the Nazi’s like many of Eastern Europe’s Jewish population), our guide also tried to break the tension with a good amount of humour, and tried to make us all feel hopeful in regards to the future of his country, as he is. By the time we ended up at the stunning but tourist engulfed historic Charles Bridge we had received a brief but through education on this beautiful city and the nation in which it resides. Thus tipping our guide, we headed off to continue exploring on independently.
As the timing gods would have it, we were all lined up to be able to join the 2pm tour of the Clementinum, a complex of buildings which was first a monastery in the 11th century, then became a Jesuit College, and then became a library and observatory under the reign of Empress Maria Theresa. It’s main attraction is a glorious library, which is one of the oldest and most beautiful in the world, as well at the Prague meridian line which lies within its tower, and of course a stunning view from the top. We set off up the narrow spiral staircase, along with the rest of the group, until we arrived outside the library. Now because of the age and fragility of the room and its books, the group had to be split into two groups and enter separately. There is only a small area just within the door where you can stand, you are only allowed around five minutes, and you are forbidden from taking photos; but the entire experience is captivating. The two levels of floor to ceiling bookcases and the ladder to reach them, the giant globes in their ornate frames, the historic clocks, the beautiful frescoes on the ceiling, and the carved sculptures of angels representing the sciences; it smelt like wood and old paper; it smelt like knowledge. The whole place is reminiscent of Beauty and the Beast, and it draws out the bibliophile from within you. We were so swept up by its beauty, and under its spell, that it took us a good moment to realise we were the last people left standing there, and we were being ushered through the door. Reluctantly we stepped out and continued up the tower, stopping briefly in the room where a thin piece of spring close to the floor marks the meridian in Prague, as this tower was once the observatory from where the stars were mapped in the heart of the city. As we ascended the stairs once more we reached the top, and after a few moments of our guide explaining the history of the tower, and how the waving of a white flag from the top would inform the citizens that it was noon before personal timepieces were a thing, she unlatched the doors and in streamed the sun. After a moment for our eyes to adjust, we stepped out onto the balcony to the picture perfect view of the sea of historic red brick rooftops, pierced here and there by church spires. After a time we made our way back to ground level.
By this time we were thoroughly famished and, on the recommendation of our walking tour guide, we headed to a nearby pub for a rather late lunch. We opted for pork knuckle with a cabbage slaw, and a mixed plate of meats with sauerkraut and the traditional potato pancakes and bread dumplings. Washing it down with a couple of cheap ciders we were more than content when we wandered back toward the market square in the warm glow of our few afternoon drinks. We took another moment to marvel at the beauty of the historic buildings flanking the square, and shake our heads in dismay at the scaffolding covering the face of the famous astronomical clock on the town hall, which is being restored until September. I must say it seems like a bad idea to carry out these works during prime tourism season, but then it’s probably a weather based decision. You have to commend them for installing a sheet of fabric on the exterior of the scaffolding with an image of the clock though (its a poor substitute, but then its better than nothing).
Figuring we wouldn’t need dinner as we were quite full and it was already after 4pm,we decided to simply end our day with yet another chimney cake with ice cream (I know it may be becoming an addiction). In our defence though, these were our first ones cooked over coals, and although they were a little drier than the ones on Brno, the light smoke flavour added immensely to the whole experience.
At last it was time to retire for the day, spending the last of the waning light in our room working on blogs and such, before eventually settling in to sleep. I must say, I learnt a lot about the Czech Republic in just this one short day, and I am impressed by its resilience in the face of so many different take overs, rulings by other countries, and such a violent and tragic past. It is refreshing to see optimism in a generation who still remember being behind the iron curtain, and to still see a deep connection to the culture and history of the region despite all of its border changes, and outside influences over the centuries. They have seemingly swept the pain under the rug, and atop of it they have sat a heavy chair in which their bright future sits, this is not to say the pain is forgotten, it is simply not what they wish to focus on. Those lucky enough to have survived it all came out of the fire strong, and they will be the solid shoulders this nation is carried into the future on.