Bohemia Part 2: Prague Intro, New Friends, and Opera

In the morning of my first full day in Prague, I was greeted with overcast skies and a chilly 15 degrees. I was optimistic that the weather would improve, so I didn’t dress too warmly. I loved the crisp air that pierced my face and hands upon stepping outside my boat hotel, as I took the short walk to the front boat to get breakfast. It is certainly not everyday that you get to have breakfast on a boat on the Vltava.

Breakfast view from Botel Matylda

The breakfast was great, consisting of various cold meats, cheeses, pastries, and the other usual breakfasty things like cereals, eggs, and bacon. There was also a decent selection of juices, tea, and coffee. Because I used the Get Your Guide app to do a free walking tour in Munich, I had decided the previous night to book  a free walking tour of Prague that day. Since it only started at 11, I took my time waking up and having my breakfast, so I could give myself at least an hour to take a slow walk to the meeting point on a side street next to Old Town Square.

After breakfast, I went back to my cabin to grab my camera, bag, and cash for the day, before heading out.

I had one favourite place in every city I went to: in Munich, it was Marienplatz; in Salzburg, it was Mirabell Palace; in Prague, it was Old Town Square. No matter what time of the day or night you go to Old Town Square, it is always buzzing with people. There is forever a lot of people just wandering around as if they have not a care in the world. The atmosphere made me feel as if I had travelled back in time.

Old Town Square

Since I was in the middle of a city, the GPS on my phone still functioned so it was easy for me to find my bearings, so I found the street where the meeting point was located quite quickly. Because of the direction I had entered the square from, the meetup point was straight ahead of me. Since I was almost 30 minutes early, I wandered a little further down the street to have a look around. The charm of Prague had really hooked me.
Celetná

On my way back to the alleyway where the tour company’s office was, I noticed dozens of people just beyond it standing around some guys with yellow umbrellas that were scattered about the area. Upon closer inspection, I realised that they were the tour guides. Each umbrella had the name of the tour on it, so I went up to the guy holding the one that said “Free Tour” and tried listening in on whether or not we needed to show our booking confirmations and of course, whether it was indeed the correct tour. Of course it was.

Each of us were given a ticket number, and since there were about 60 of us, the guide I was standing near used those numbers to split the group into two. Our guide was Derek, an American from some little town in Massachusetts. He seemed to be annoyed that everyone assumed that he’s from Boston, just because he said Massachusetts, but I suppose it’s because as non-Americans, most people don’t know of any town in the state.

Derek, who appeared to be in his mid 30s, told us a little bit more about himself, including his background (which I can’t remember) and that he’d been living in Prague for about a year. Being a tour guide was what he did for a living, and although he’d get a salary from the paid tours, without tips from the free ones, he wouldn’t make enough to really live comfortably. The Koruna is not at all strong against the Euro, however I’m sure he would have had some US Dollars to exchange which would have helped him a great deal. He also gave us a brief overview of where we’d be going on the tour, and how long it would take – roughly 2.5 hours depending on the pace of the group.

One of the first places Derek wanted to dazzle us with was the Astronomical Clock. And by “dazzle”, I mean “disappoint”. If you’ve seen the Mona Lisa in person then that is probably number 1 on the list of Most Disappointing Things. The Astronomical Clock, however, comes pretty close. In fact, some would say it takes top spot. It is without a doubt one of the most disappointing things you’ll ever see. It is beautiful, no doubt, but the “show” that happens every hour on the hour is such a waste of time, that the only good reason to go there would be to witness the mass look of disappointment in the faces of those in the crowd that gather in front of it. I found myself constantly thinking “Ok, maybe now something will happen”, but it never did. Everyone should go see it on the hour, but just don’t set your expectations high because they’ll come crashing down in no time. No pun intended.

Astronomical Clock

Our next stop was the Rudolfinum, home of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. It is a beautiful building situated next to the Vltava river, and is one of the few buildings that survived the Nazi occupation, as Hitler enjoyed the cultural experience he got from it so ordered troops not to destroy it.

Rudolfinum

Derek gave us plenty of opportunities to sit, especially when he was about to give a long speech, which helped a lot because when you’re travelling, you usually get so caught up in wanting to see everything that you actually forget to rest your feet.

While at the Rudolfinum, Derek also told us about the Butcher of Prague. In his opinion, even though Hitler was bad, the Butcher of Prague (SS General Reinhard Heydrich) was evil to the bone. He was actually one of the key players in the Holocaust, and because he was essentially in charge while in Czechoslovakia, he used it to his advantage by torturing and murdering as many Jews as he possibly could, in order to break the will of the Czech people. He alone was responsible for killing at least 2 million Jews.Old Jewish Cemetery

As if we weren’t saddened enough by the stories about the Holocaust, we still had to visit the Jewish Quarter. The thing that upset me the most was seeing the Old Jewish Cemetery. The story is too sad for me to repeat in detail, but basically the layer of tombstones that you see above the ground is not the only layer. There are in fact several layers of graves in that little plot, since the Jews were not given more land to bury their dead, so there is believed to be around 100 000 bodies buried in that little space. Because the ground was raised by 3m due to the constant flooding of the Vltava river every decade or so, what is visible above the ground today is actually not the full height of the cemetery. It was eye opening to say the least.Goulash with bread dumplings

 

The tour ended at roughly 2pm, with everyone queuing to give Derek a tip. He decided to hold out his beanie so that we could put their tips in that, allowing him to look us in the eye and shake our hands instead of looking at how much we gave him. A tall, friendly-looking American guy and a really short Indian girl were standing together, hovering in the same vicinity as I was after I tipped Derek. We all noticed that some people didn’t give a tip at all, and just walked away after the tour. The guy mentioned how he was shocked that those people just walked away, and asked how much I gave as a tip cos he wasn’t sure what would be acceptable. We chatted briefly about it, then we all introduced ourselves. He was Tyrone, and the girl was Daphne. They had both met on another tour a couple days prior in Munich if I remember correctly. It was just a random meeting and they became friends after that.Lokal

We decided that we were starving, and since these 2 seemed like fun company, I accepted their offer of exploring with them. Derek had told us about a great, reasonably priced restaurant that is very popular among both locals and foreigners, Lokal, which was a short walk away. One of the tips Derek gave us was to not pay more than 40 Crowns for a beer; if we did, we’d be paying to much.

Following Derek’s directions, we walked for a few minutes but my gut feeling told me that we had taken a wrong turn. After finally convincing Daphne that we had definitely lost our way, we retraced our steps and found Lokal shortly after. We were greeted by a friendly waitress who spoke fluent English, and seated us immediately. Before I left South Africa, I asked a Czech friend of mine what she’d recommend in terms of food. One of the things was goulash and dumplings. Her daughter also said that I should try black beer, so when I got to Lokal and saw both of those on the menu, it was a no brainer.

Tyrone and I ordered the same thing, and Daphne ordered some kind of pork thing. I told them about my friend’s advice about having black beer, so they both ordered one too. It was officially my first Czech beer and boy, did I love it.

Drinking black beer, Prague

After lunch, we chatted a little and then decided that we should actually go to see an opera that evening at the St Nicholas Church just next to the Old Town Square. I mean, how often does one get to do that?

Old Town Square

We took a lazy stroll back to the square, stopping at random places to take photos. Since we knew where St Nicholas Church was, we went straight there after getting the photos we wanted. There was a lady handing out pamphlets and selling tickets at the church’s door. We decided to go for the 8pm show, since 5pm was too close by and we wanted to freshen up. I, for one, was desperate to get a scarf as the wind was freezing me to the bone, so the last thing I wanted to do was wander around at night without being warmly dressed. Also, I had more than enough cold nights outside since Munich, so it was time I had the proper attire. There was certainly no point in trying to be a hero.

Pocket mirror

Tyrone, Daphne, and I agreed to meet back outside the church at 7pm before parting ways, so that we could grab a quick bite before the show. Since there was WiFi at Lokal, Tyrone and I added each other on Facebook, so there’d be some way to communicate with each other. I kind of knew exactly where I wanted to go to get a scarf, so I went as quickly as I could back towards the river and over Charles Bridge to the shops I had walked around the night before. I was able to get one that I really liked, as well as some souvenirs which I decided not to put off, in case I didn’t get another opportunity to get them. Besides, it’s nice to get these things out of the way as soon as you can. I knew it would take at least 25 minutes to get back to my hotel from there, so I didn’t waste much time shopping.St Nicholas Church

When I got back to the hotel, I put a jersey on over the T-shirt I was wearing, and my Hofbrauhaus jacket on top of that, with the scarf tied around my neck. I was taking no chances. When I stepped outside, it was the perfect number of layers, and I happily walked back to Old Town Square. Since I was early, I went to some vendors and found another trinket to take home – a pocket mirror with a metallic coloured Astronomical Clock on the lid. It also made an excellent gift as the vendor engraved whatever name you asked her to on the actual mirror.

After I got what I wanted, I went back to the church. It was not long before Tyrone showed up. We waited at least 15 minutes for Daphne and when she didn’t show up, we realised that she had probably fallen asleep, having had a very late night before. Unlike us, she had bought her ticket in the afternoon, so we were pretty sure she’d show up eventually. We bought our tickets and wandered around a little, wondering whether or not to get something to eat, but then decided to pass since we were actually still pretty full from lunch.

Old Town Square

Old Town Square

The inside of the church was magnificent. It was the smallest church I’d ever been to, but it was so beautiful with its gigantic white chandelier hanging in the centre. We had some time to look around and take photos, and even though there were at least 2 dozen other people there, it was still quite quiet. Daphne showed up literally about 5 minutes before the show could start. She did fall asleep.

The show started at 8pm sharp, once the door was closed. It was absolutely silent then, and every sound echoed. It was like nothing I had ever experienced, even though I’ve been in so many churches before. This was the first one where I felt as though I was locked in. I did humour myself with the thought “Is this the part where they kill us and no one would know?”.

I can’t really describe just how fantastic the sound of the mini orchestra was in those closed walls. No microphones or speakers were needed, and I could feel the music resonate through my soul. I had goosebumps throughout almost the entire performance. The woman who sang had the most lovable face, and listening to her sing with such a powerful voice made me emotional.

St Nicholas Church opera

The show lasted about 90 minutes, so we still had some time to find something to eat before Tyrone and Daphne could go to the Pub Crawl they had booked for 10pm, although I was pretty sure it would be a very tight squeeze to get food and be back wherever they needed to be on time.

We walked across Charles Bridge since we knew there’d be places to buy food there, and stopped along the way to admire the view of Prague Castle and the general splendour of the bridge at night. I was in love with Prague from the moment I arrived, so even the smallest of things was beautiful.

Charles Bridge Prague Castle from Charles Bridge

Charles Bridge is longer than you think, so it was actually quite a walk to get to the other side. Daphne said the most absurd thing that I’ll never forget – that the tower on the hill was 10m taller than the Eiffel Tower because it was on top of a hill. Tyrone and I tried our best to be tactful while trying to explain that a tower’s height is measured from its base, not the level of the ground that it is built on. It took a few tries to convince her that it was simply the Czech sense of humour, as they were purposely making fun of themselves by claiming that it was taller.

Prague Castle from Karlov Most

By the time we got to the other side, I still wasn’t really hungry but I ordered something small, along with my 2 new friends, from the first takeaway place we saw. I had gotten used to eating at odd times and skipping meals, so I didn’t want to end the day without having some form of supper.

I was pretty exhausted from walking by then, so as soon as they got their orders and we began to head back over the bridge, I told them to carry on and that I’d see them the following morning. Tyrone and I decided to do the Prague Castle Tour, so we knew we’d see each other again, since we had booked our tickets before going to Lokal. Daphne had already been on the tour, so she’d be off on her own mission, which was fine with me as I found myself getting along better with Tyrone.

My feet were pretty sore by the end of the night, but I loved being on Charles Bridge so much that I opted to have my snack on the bridge while admiring the view. The breeze was fresh and chilly, but I could only feel it on my face. I loved it.

While I was eating, fireworks started going off in my hotel’s vicinity. I had no idea what was going on, but all I could think of was that there could not have been a better ending to my day. It was as if Prague was loving me back.

Fireworks over the Vltava

One of the main things I love about travelling alone is that you can spend as long as you want wherever you want. I used that to my advantage while watching those fireworks. Not only was I enjoying the light show, I was also just absorbing as much of the atmosphere as possible, as well as the cold river breeze on my face. Even though Munich was my favourite city, I never experienced such a deep soul moving feeling while there. Standing on that bridge that late at night is one place where I could literally keep my eyes closed for as long as I wanted and not have a soul bother me. When you travel, you use your eyes and hands, but you don’t always listen. Do yourself a favour – wherever you find yourself happy, close your eyes and listen to where you are too. It will leave an imprint on your brain forever.

Go to Prague. It is that fairytale you always heard about.

Karlov Most

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