I know very little about the Czech Republic other than the history of the land being passed back and forth between other countries before it gained independence, but I have always wanted to visit Prague. Truthfully, if you had asked me why, I wouldn't have known exactly what to say or I’d have said something vague about “hearing good things” about the city, which was about all I knew until we started doing some research for this trip. Prior to this year, the chance to visit Prague was essentially the chance to check (Czech?) another country off the bucket list. When we started doing more research, the chance to visit became more interesting and urgent.
As it is I still feel like I only got the “cruise-ship edition” of the city - our time was extremely brief (only about five hours) so we barely got the chance to even start to process the old part of town, which is more crowded with obvious tourism than I’ve ever seen in Europe. Everywhere you turn are guides asking to take you on tours. Jared was wearing his Real Madrid shirt, which gave him the great excuse to speak to tour guides in whatever language they didn’t speak to him. They spoke Spanish, he spoke Portuguese. Portuguese, he’d speak English, and so on. I’ve learned to just ignore. Who needs a tour guide when you’ve studied Rick Steves?!
We made good use of our time. I found the Czech Republic on the whole quite dirty compared to most of my other European experiences, particularly when it comes to graffiti. It doesn’t seem to be the product of gang violence (at least not according to Gerlinde), just part of Czech culture. Prague seems to have escaped most of that. The subway is easy to navigate and well kept, a mercy given that none of us spoke a lick of Czech. Prague itself seems to be a pretty big exception to the rest of the country that we saw today on our drive in and out - where most cities seem to be run down and still struggling to recover from the effects of the war and communism, Prague was spared the bombings of the war and remains one of the most historic and beautiful cities in Eastern Europe. It is a crowded mess and does feel like a cruise port, but it is full of a variety of things to do and I’d love the chance to go back and do it more justice.
Ultimately today we settled for walking through the historic part of the city and over the Charles Bridge, which was built in the 1300s and still serves the city as a footpath across the river. The views of the city on either side of the river from here are lovely. Then we went back into the historic district to visit the Jewish Quarter.
Prague has a long connection with Jews, and for many years they have housed the largest (or one of the largest) populations of Jews in Europe. As with most cities, the Jews were invited in and expelled several times over, but each time they returned to Prague they flourished. At one point, Prague held about a quarter of the Jews in all of Europe, which is impressive. As I’m sure you’ve guessed, that didn’t last, and the Jews were eventually relegated to the specific part of town where the Jewish Quarter stands today. At first it was an unspoken rule, but it became law. Jews in Prague enjoyed many luxuries because of their numbers - there were about six synagogues, they even had their own government and their own flag (which they were allowed to fly).
Of course, being confined in such large numbers to one part of town has its problems over the years as well. One such problem was in a place to bury their dead. They were allowed one cemetery - this small plot houses more than 200,000 people (often buried about twelve deep) in a small piece of land between two of the synagogues. Headstones crowd around each other only inches apart, barely enough distance between them to read the names at times. It was a sobering sight. Inside one of the other buildings is a memorial to all the Jews who were killed in concentration camps during the war. Each wall throughout the building have names inscribed of victims - going through room after room after room of nothing but names is intimidating and shocking. I don’t think my love of Jewish history will ever fade, nor do I think I’ll ever fully comprehend how people can be so horrible to one another.
We didn’t have much time to see all the features of the Jewish Quarter - after a tour of a synagogue we had to find food and head back so that we could catch our bus back to Germany. We did have time to stop for a pastry, though (there’s always time for that.) Today we tried a Prague specialty called “trdelnik”. Dough is wrapped around a pole and dipped into a sugar and crushed walnut mix, then cooked over a spit. You can eat them fresh off the pole or with ice cream. Mine had some Nutella on it as well. It was much larger than I could possibly have eaten on my own but well worth the calories. Delicious. Heaven bless the many people who have come up with so many delightful uses for flour and sugar and butter to be consumed!
Our night ended with a “family dinner” at Juergen and Gerlinde’s son’s home. His little boys ran around and played football/soccer with Jared, peed in the bushes, dove into the blow-up pool completely naked, and played all sorts of other games (real and imagined) that reminded me that childhood is universal and there are some things (like those damned fidget spinners) that are part of that universality. Even being as crippled as I am with conversation this week, I had lots of fun watching those little boys play with the same physical and mental abandon that you see in children on the other side of the world.