Wednesday, February 22, 2012

east meets west

I can officially add Prague to one of my favourite places in the world.  This weekend, I travelled to this miraculously-preserved city with two amazing friends, and we had the trip of a lifetime.

The adventure began before we even left for the airport when we learned that WizzAir would charge us a ridiculous sum for bringing anything larger than a piece of hand luggage on board.  At the last minute, I completely abandoned my original packing scheme - my large hiking pack - for my Longchamp pink shoulder bag.  I stuffed it with three lululemon Run Swiftly shirts, a pair of wunder unders, and some toiletries and left for the airport hoping that I would not regret this decision.
The adventure continued as we first laid eyes on the plane.  I simply could not take the hot pink colour seriously.
Making things even more laughable - only because we did actually arrive safely - was the fact that I am fairly certain that our pilot was more than mildly intoxicated.  Then, once we landed in Prague, our independence was immediately tested as we were forced to navigate the local bus system and the tram lines to find our hostel.
We emerged from the underground tram system in the Stare Mesto, the Old Town center of Prague.  Even though it was dark, we could tell that we were no longer in London.  The cobblestone streets and the Eastern-style architecture made us feel as though we had left the Western world.  Eventually, we arrived at the Hostel Tyn where we would be staying for the duration of our stay.  As we approached the front desk to check-in, we were greeted by a group of middle-aged men enthusiastically downing shots of vodka.  What had we gotten ourselves into?  Luckily, one of them was sober enough to hand us our room keys, and we immediately ascended the flight of stairs to crash onto our beds.  Surprisingly, they may have been more comfortable the ones provided in Atlantic House in London.

After a well-deserved rest, we rose early the next morning to begin our first day in Prague.  First stop, we headed to Bohemia Bagel for coffee and breakfast.
Then, feeling energized to begin the day, we decided to tackle the first destination on our itinerary.  Hopping back on the tram system, we made our way towards Prague Castle.  After climbing what seemed like a neverending flight of stone steps in the drizzling rain, we reached the top and discovered a picturesque view of the city.
We were also greeted by some pretty enthusiastic palace guards.
After pausing for a photo op, we entered into the massive complex of Prague Castle to begin our tour.  After purchasing tickets, we initially felt overwhelmed with everything to see here.  Unsure of what to do first, we followed the crowd and joined the massive queue in front of one of the entrances.  When we reached the front, we learned that we had stood in line for a special exhibit containing objects from the Kremlin in Moscow.  We shrugged our shoulders and decided to experience it.  Once inside, we discovered gorgeous costumes, religious icons, and jewelry that was visible for the first time outside of Russia.  We were definitely glad that we had chosen to enter!

After finishing the exhibit, we decided to go inside St. Vitus Cathedral which was built by Charles IV in the fourteenth century.  
From the outside, I marveled at the stunning Gothic spires and flying buttresses.  Within, I was floored by the beautiful mosaics and exquisite examples of stained glass.
Once again, I drew drastic comparisons between the east and the west.  Having spent time in Paris, I compared this cathedral experience to touring places like Notre Dame and Chartres.  While these Gothic structures have been miraculously restored overtime, St. Vitus Cathedral really seemed to reflect years of history.  As an art history major who loves architecture, this was certainly one of my favourite stops of the day.

Also within the castle complex, we visited St. George's Basilica and the National Gallery, which houses a collection of Czech art.  This was also a necessary stop for an art history major.  Feeling slightly overwhelmed from all of this art and history, we were unsure of whether or not we would make it to the next stop on our itinerary: the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Loreta.  Not wanting to miss anything though, we began our hike up the road behind the palace.  When we arrived at the site, we were immediately glad that we had chosen to make the journey.  In stunning contrast to the medieval architecture of St. Vitus, this baroque structure, which houses a replica of the Santa Casa (the house of the Virgin Mary), was not to be missed.
Finally, we began to make our way down the hill back towards the town center.  Of course, I could not resist doing some shopping on the way.  We even stopped at a cute puppet store that sold Czech hand-carved marionette dolls.
The view on the way down was not too bad either.
Also on our way home, we strolled across the infamous Charles Bridge, an essential landmark of Prague.  
When we arrived back in the Stare Mesto, we were confronted with the task of finding a suitable place for dinner.  With none of us being huge fans of goulash or mulled wine, we were slightly limited in our choices.  We ended up sitting down at the Hard Rock Cafe which actually ended up being one of the best decisions of the day because we met Prague's own Justin Bieber.  
Exhausted from our busy first day, we returned to our hostel for another well-deserved night's sleep.  

The next morning, we rose early again to enjoy our second day.  After coffee at Bohemia Bagel again, we wandered around Josefev, Prague's Jewish Quarter where we discovered old winding streets and numerous synagogues.  
Continuing our walk, we made our way towards St. Wenceslas Square, which, throughout history, has been marked by protest and controversy.  Once arriving, we were greeted by the magnificent stature of St. Wenceslas of Christmas carol-fame, but we also saw the memorial to Jan Palach and Jan Zadjic, both of whom burned themselves alive in 1969 in protest of the Soviet invasion of Prague.
Moving forward in history, we also visited the Museum of Communism which is a sobering memory of Prague's more recent turbulent past.  
After exiting the museum, to lighten the mood, we decided to visit a traditional Czech bar called U Zlateho Tygra.  Supposedly, when President Clinton visited Prague, President Havel of the Czech Republic took him here to show him an authentic pivnice (traditional pub).
Indeed, hanging prominently on a wall inside is a photo of President Clinton himself, most likely enjoying a large stein of Pilsner.

To create a perfect end to our second day in Prague, we chose to dine at a restaurant called Country Life.  In defiant avoidance of "traditional Czech" dumplings, sauerkraut, and roast pork, we chose this all-vegan buffet for supper.  We left happy and full.  

The next morning, we awoke to our last morning in Prague.  For our last stop, we decided to visit a local cafe called Kava Kava Kava for some delicious coffee.  As we sat here enjoying our last few hours in Prague, we all agreed that this weekend could not have been more perfect.  After staying here for three days, we were already beginning to feel like locals who could navigate the winding city streets with ease.  I also could not imagine a better two people as travel companions.  We got along marvelously, never once arguing or growing tired with each other's company.  In this historic city where east meets west, I think that I can confirm that I have made two friends for life.