Prague: The End of the Line
We caught a train out of Vienna and made our way to Prague, eating cheese and playing cribbage as the countryside whipped past. Prague is immediately beautiful and inviting – with its Disneyland-like architecture and grand setting along the fast-flowing Danube river. Our arrival was marred only by the fact that I realized that I had, for the fifth time on the trip, accidentally taken the keys from our previous AirBnB apartment. After yet another trip to the post office to mail them back to their rightful owner and, hopeful that the lesson was finally learned, we checked into our charming new digs.
The apartment we stayed in was previously occupied by a family of seven, which boggles the mind because the place was simply a living room and kitchen with an outhouse restroom around the corner outside. The bathtub was literally next to the kitchen sink, and one could only imagine the chaos of an average morning as this huge family tried to get ready for the day. It did lead to us getting one of the best pictures of the trip, which I have titled “Girl in Tub” (of course, there was also the companion piece, “Idiot in Tub”):
Living in these tight quarters made us thankful for the spacious living that we enjoyed back in the states. Although modest, the place was adorable and served as the perfect headquarters for exploring the charming city of Prague.
Prague dazzled us from the moment we stepped outside. The sweeping views from the Charles bridge were breathtaking and we spent a lot of time hiking through the hills, which were literally bursting with blooming linden trees, the symbol of the city. With so many white petals, the hills appeared to be covered in fresh snow even though the spring air was warm and full of sunshine. The effect was intoxicating.
As you can see, Prague is a city of views and another amazing vantage point is around each and every corner. As a city that lived for decades under oppressive communist rule, Prague has a noticeable fascination with liberty and freedom of expression. Of of the more striking examples of this was the Lennon wall.
John Lennon was a hero to the Czech’s and, after his death, this wall was spray-painted with his image and lyrics alongside other images of creativity, imagination, and protest. The communist government had it painted over, but each night people would return to restore the wall to its colorful glory. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Czech republic gained its independence and the wall is now a permanent fixture and popular destination for tourists and locals alike.
When we arrived Prague happened to be celebrating the spirit of creativity by honoring the works of director Tim Burton. The temporary Burton exhibition featured original drawings and sketches by the director which showed his artistic vision for many of his most memorable movies: Batman, Beetlejuice, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Edward Scissorhands. After a year of looking at classic and modern artwork, it was clear that Burton deserves the title of master artist. His work is decidedly dark, and sometimes downright scary, but it has a soul and tenderness just beneath the surface. Burton cares for his bizarre creations and wants the audience to care as well. As a boy who grew up in suburban Southern California, it’s impressive that he was so willing to go against the overwhelming pressure to conform, using bizarre new combinations of form and color to explore themes of isolation, death, and love. It was appropriate that Prague was showcasing his works; both the city and the man were rebelling against different forms of oppression.
The city was full of its own delightful homages to creativity and defiance of authority:
Yet, what most sets Prague apart from other European cities is its fairy tale architecture. The main square combines buildings from a host of different styles and centuries and looks like a movie set. On one end of the square, the Astronomical clock (telling the time, date, and position of the planets on a series of intricate dials and panels), which dates back to 1410, is a highly intricate affair that draws huge crowds. Not only does the clock chime, but gears spin, wooden figures whirl around, and death itself makes an appearance.
The rest of the square included churches with enormous spires, royal-looking apartments with fresco walls and playful colors, and inviting cafes with outdoor seating. To top it all off, we happened to arrive during an Easter market, which meant bright decorations in the trees, children singing, and lots of delicious food vendors. With such a visual (and literal) feast, it was hard to know where to go first.
Fortunately, we followed our stomachs and ended up at a highly recommended restaurant called Lokal, right next to our room, that is a reconstruction of communist-era style cafeteria eating. They even instruct the waiters to be somewhat gruff, which is how they used to be in the 1980’s. The main room was enormous and packed with Czech’s talking and drinking beer. I ordered a beef tartar that arrived looking delicious, but I was a little puzzled as to how to go about eating it. The friendly Czech guy next to me immediately sensed my apprehension and motioned at the plate, as if he wanted to take it. “It’s okay?” he asked. “Uh, sure,” I replied. He snatched the bread and raw garlic from my plate and began to furiously scrape the garlic into the bread until the entire surface was covered, then he spread the raw meat on top of that and took a bite. He immediately smiled broadly and clapped by back. “Good!” he shouted as he handed back the plate, which was now ready to eat. As I took my first bite, all concern about this stranger manhandling my food disappeared – it was absolutely delicious, as was all of the food that we encountered in Prague, from medieval feasts (we went to a tavern called U Sedmi Svabu) featuring pork knuckle and sauerkraut pancakes to vegetarian delights at an adorable place called Lehka Hlava (meaning clear head – this place was actually so cutting-edge that they had a “breathetarian” section of the menu where you ordered food that you absorbed simply by breathing the fumes – talk about low impact on the earth!). Prague is a city that tastes as good as it looks.
Lunch and dinner weren’t the only things that Prague did right. The AMAZING bakery you see below, called The Bakeshop, was so good that we went back literally every morning. By morning number five, we were a little embarrassed to be back, yet again, ordering a mountain of pastries and coffee, but we just couldn’t help ourselves.
It would be a shame to have all that food and not have something with which to wash it down. Lucky for everyone, the beer of the Czech Republic is exceptionally good and plentiful. We spent an entire afternoon in a beer garden up on a hill with a view of the Danube, playing cards and watching the locals drink and hang out in the sun. This is a city that, like most of Europe, really knows how to kick back and enjoy life.
The Jewish Quarter was another fantastic neighborhood to explore, full of the sad but resilient history of Prague’s Jewish population. One of the more amazing sites of our entire trip was the eerie cemetery where generation after generation of families are buried and tombstones so numerous that they push up around each other like plants competing for sunlight. The Spanish Synagogue was the highlight, a building of incredible Arabic architecture, from geometric domed ceilings to enormous archways and stained glass, all imbued with rich blues, reds, greens, and browns. We were lucky enough to get tickets to a performance and were treated to works by Gershwin and Ravel while our heads remained on a constant swivel, trying to take in all the beauty that surrounded us.
Finally, the Danube itself is a major show in Prague, with the Charles Bridge providing the main event. Construction of the bridge began in 1357 and the whole thing is dripping with atmospheric history – we walked across it countless times during the day and at night, and never got tired of the scenery. To get a slightly different perspective, we rented paddle boats at sunset and sat out in the middle of all this splendor as the waning sunlight danced on the dark water. We were in heaven.
This was it for me, the end of the line. Our trip together was at its end as we had just a few days left in Madrid before I needed to get on a plane back to San Francisco to start my job. Our final night, inspired by the Burton exhibition, we watched a Nightmare Before Christmas and something about the sweet little love song at the end of the movie between Jack Skellington and Sally just hit a huge nerve in me and made me cry like a little baby. I was sad to be leaving Laura for two months and even sadder that our Spanish adventure was at its end after so many incredible memories.
When you go on vacation for a year, you think it will last forever, because that is about 50 weeks longer than any other vacation you’ve ever been on, but the reality is that all things come to an end – even an entire year abroad. It was a harsh revelation, but as I fell asleep that night, I realized how short life is and how important it is to life our lives to the fullest. We have this rare, incredible gift of life and we have to make the most of the opportunity, because it will all be over before we know it. For me, the way I honor that is by spending every moment I can with this miracle of a person:
And I am the luckiest person in the world…
So, whatever that may be for you – don’t wait – go do it! You’ll be glad you did.