Europe has some great cities, but while Barcelona, Berlin, Brussels, London, Paris, and Rome all have their charms, all of them have been bombed at one time or another. War scars cities, and those scars mean more than lost neighborhoods. They translate into lost history.
One city, however, was spared. One city endured while others were shelled. It’s not because this city wasn’t important or wasn’t large enough. Perhaps it was luck, perhaps it was blessed. We think it was both. What city are we writing about? Prague, in the Czech Republic.
No one carpet-bombed its architecture into Swiss cheese. Its palace of a castle still stands, looking as it did in the thirteenth century. Only pigeons have attacked its public sculptures, and those attacks, we’re pleased to report, have done only moderate damage.
Walking through Prague, you can imagine the year is 1912 or 1856 or 1780. The buildings—ornate masterpieces of individual and collective pride—still stand as they did then. The town square hasn’t been crowded out by fast food, subway entrances, or modern superstores. It’s a wonderful city rich in history, art, music, and good food.
But take a lesson from us: it’s a city that awakens slowly.
During our visit, we consulted a travel book (which shall remain nameless) that recommended viewing the Charles Bridge—famous for its religious statuary as it spans the Vltava River—early in the morning. Wake up and see the sunrise, the book said. Avoid the crowds. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
So we rose just after the sun. Five AM. Intrepid travelers, we’d endured worse for the call of adventure. The travel book, we soon learned, was correct: the only people we encountered at the bridge were an amorous couple who kept giving us dirty looks. You’d have done the same; after all, we had cameras.
We enjoyed the quiet and took many unimpeded photos of the guy copping a feel. Then we got a few pictures of the views and of the bridge’s statues in the early morning sunlight. It was peaceful and warm there in the heart of this ancient and beautiful city. We felt strangely nurtured. We had nowhere to be, and we had coins of the realm in our pockets. We basked in the glory of a rare success. Everything seemed right with the world. This was what traveling was all about.
Our preliminary plan was to cross the bridge to Prague’s “Lesser Town,” wander the curving streets, and then have a full breakfast in at a quaint café. Once our bellies were full, we’d tour the magnificent castle high on the hill. It was a good plan, as plans go. After all, we had all day.
Unfortunately, it seemed, so did Prague. Every café was closed, every restaurant shuttered. Even the little neighborhood kiosks were still awaiting their delivery of fresh baked goods. We couldn’t bring ourselves to buy some week-old, shrink-wrapped muffin. We wanted Breakfast: eggs, fresh bread, meat, stuff like that.
So, like the experienced travelers we were, we altered our plans to fit the circumstances. We searched for the John Lennon Wall—the site where, legend has it, revolutionaries gathered during the Communist years, inspired by the songs of the ex-Beatle. People sometimes forget the impact music has in other cultures. We wanted to see it first-hand.
After a few wrong turns (and with no one around to ask directions), we eventually found the wall tucked away in a nondescript courtyard. Graffiti and spontaneous artwork covered the cement like vomit on a Grateful Dead T-shirt after a three-show weekend. At least it suppressed our appetite, momentarily.
The John Lennon Wall: a piece of history or a mural gone too far?
After a snapshot or two, we wandered aimlessly in search of food. Ironically, our trek led us to Prague’s Hunger Wall. A stone wall ascending Petøin Hill, it essentially divides nothing and goes nowhere. The wall was built by the city’s poor in the 14th century in exchange for food. Sadly, we would have done the same, given the chance.
With nowhere else to turn, we headed toward the castle. Uphill all the way. The castle didn’t officially open until ten o’clock, but we hoped to find food somewhere in the neighborhood. Bureaucrats have to eat, don’t they? We’d even settle for a street vendor selling borscht, as long as it was relatively fresh. As we neared the castle, the city began to come alive. We didn’t know whether it was the passing hour, the proximity to the castle, or the power of positive thinking.
We eventually found a three-table restaurant. The hard wooden seat felt like a thousand cushions. The bitter coffee tasted like 100-year-old brandy. When we asked for a menu, though, the waitress raised a bushy eyebrow at us. That should have given us a clue, but we were too tired and hungry to pay attention. The food came and we consumed it quickly. We didn’t really taste it then. We didn’t have to. We tasted it for the rest of the day.
Lessons Learned: Enjoy the charms of Prague, but forget making plans. Pack a lunch instead.
How We Saw It
Communication Breakdown: 3
Customer Dis-service: 3
Discomfort Level: 2
Grunge Factor: 1
Inactivity Guide: 1
Spontaneous Consumption: 3
Fun Fraction: 3/5
If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Prague Ruzyně Airport
Native Population: 1,250,000
Normal Attractions: Old Town, Prague Castle, the Charles Bridge, the old Jewish quarter, architecture (including the new Dancing House), as well as fine dining, museums, and lots of shopping.
Final Point of Interest: Franz Kafka lived and wrote in Prague. If you stay in the city long enough, so the story goes, you too will develop a paranoid tendency to rival his. Unless you refuse to sober up.