Ever since some family friends took a spontaneous trip to Prague five years ago and returned singing its praises, it shot to the top of my list of places to see, and on this trip, Prague was the city I was looking forward to more than any other, a lone bright star in an otherwise dark and obscure Eastern European sky. Visions of a dark, gothic paradise beckoned; if I was going to wander around narrow streets and stumble into a dim underground bar invited in by a single lamp swinging from its door and be transported to another time, it was going to be in Prague.
Unrealistic expectations aside, like most people who visit in the height of summer, I was let down. Prague wasn’t dark; it was Disney dark. Its buildings were painted in pleasant shades of peach, pink, cream, and powder blue, it was filled with colorful overpriced kitsch shops by the Charles Bridge, and every old, crumbling, looming church topped with threatening black spires was swarmed by loud tourists who wouldn’t let each other take a single photo. To say Prague was touristy is a gross understatement; every hour of every day people rubbed elbows in the historic districts, fighting each other to see the astronomical clock. The atmosphere in this pretty area was strictly commercial, which I found very unappealing.
At night it was somewhat less packed than in the day and all bright lights. The best thing I found to do there was get caught under a bridge in the rain with a bunch of other backpackers going home or to the next bar and then get fried cheese at 3AM. This supposedly famous snack is a deep fried cheese patty stuffed into a bun, into which you self-serve globs of mayo. Yes, you have to choose mayo and it has to be globs of it. You can have fun in this area for sure; it just won’t really be Prague. I saw not a single Czech walking around the old town that didn’t work in tourism or food service. I felt like we had kicked these people out of their own home, forcing them to retreat to the unsightly industrial outskirts none of us wanted to see.
I found it hard to appreciate the beauty around me in such chaos, so it’s a good thing my photos retain the lovely sea of red tile roofs punctured by needles sitting atop heavy stone edifices that have been darkened with centuries Prague is. You can see 360 degrees of this view from the top of the Astronomical Clock, which itself is one of the most beautiful pieces of architecture and prettier than anything a camera can catch. Prague’s clock is the oldest working astronomical clock in the world, and from the tower you can see its major historical buildings and read a nice description on the ledge about whatever monument or church you happen to be facing.
My favorite was the Church of Our Lady Before Týn, a gothic church with a distinctive pair of steeples topped with pointing, ball-bearing spires. The two towers are asymmetrical because building begun in the earlier Romanesque era which used asymmetry, to represent masculine v. feminine I believe, with the north tower being thinner.
The Powder Gate, one of the old entrances into town, is a huge, heavy, imposing tower that now appears to have been plopped in the middle of the road (the reality is, of course, the opposite). There’s something inexpressibly grand about it; it’s dark and ornate, but not excessively so. Not rococo.
Another highlight is Prague’s oldest and most famous bridge, the Charles Bridge. It’s from the gothic period and covered in baroque statues, the most famous being of Jan Nepomuk, patron saint of Bohemia who was pushed off the bridge to his death by King Wenceslas in the 14th century. All of the statues now are replicas. Like much in the world, the bridge is prettiest from afar; what a huge disappointment it was to be crowded on it to the point of immobility while hundreds of people tried to rub the replicated statues on their shiny golden worn down bits and vendors sat luring their enormous market with caricature portraits and cheap jewelry. There’s redemption at the end, sort of, in the form of another beautiful tower. Going under it is something out of a storybook. Once you’re on the other side that whole area is filled with nothing but the priciest tourist traps with charming, overpriced art and puppet shops and jewelry, but it’s really the prettiest and most romantic spot in the Old Town. If only there weren’t so many damn tourists!
Other pretty buildings were the Church of Saint Nicholas, an ornate white and sea green baroque one, the old synagogue in the Jewish Quarter, Josefov, and the Cathedral Church of St. Vitus by the castle, which was covered in gargoyles who look like they’re vomiting down on you. If you walk around back on a narrow alley, you’ll find those gargoyles. That, to me, was what Prague was supposed to be.
Wandering around on Friday, I stumbled into the Absintherie. Absinthe is sold throughout Prague, but none of it contains the hallucinogenic wormwood, I was told, which in my opinion defeats the purpose. The Absintherie is sort of a museum and café where you can try different absinthe-based drinks and have a shot the traditional way, with a slotted spoon and sugar cube. The spoon sits atop the glass, the sugar atop the spoon, and ice water is slowly poured over it, dripping the sugar in. The final mixture is cloudy with a majority of ice water. There’s another, more modern way that involves fire which most tourists prefer: the now absinthe-soaked sugar cube is lit on fire and dropped it into the absinthe, now also ablaze, and then doused with a shot of cold water. This method supposedly makes it stronger but destroys the subtleties in the drink, according to traditional absintheurs, who come from France. I got an absinthe ice cream cone. It’s mostly pistachio ice cream with a bit of absinthe and feels like taking a shot very, very slowly. Halfway through I was pretty happy and slightly stumbling through the Old Town, unconcerned that it was getting dark and I had a forty-five minute walk back.
The next day, I wandered around Prague Castle with a couple girls from the hostel. There was a tree on the walls that everyone took photos with. I’m not sure of the tree’s significance other than getting dressed up for Christmas and being on Prague Castle, but I got a picture with it, too. Going down we passed by a small vineyard and did probably the stupidest thing any of us did on our trips: from walls covered with a growth of mysterious berries we dared each other to all bite into one. Our tongues retained a worrying tingling sensation for an hour after we realized what we’d done and spat the berries back out. A numbing absinthe ice cream cone would have been helpful then.
So we ventured into the Old Town, across the Charles Bridge, past the store selling creepy puppets, and in search of the Absintherie, which only I knew of and led us around town trying to find again. All I remembered was that it was on the sketchiest street in the Old Town (not that sketchy). Along the way we found the sex toy museum, whose price of admission wasn’t worth seeing the terrifying contraptions we could just google. There was a fake “love tester” that you sat in to get your desire rated. I know it was fake because it rated me “cold.”
Other sights included a totally unrelated supermarket of sex toys, the most sarcastic looking busker I’ve ever seen dressed in drag, and David Cerny’s Pissing Men statue outside the Kafka Museum, where two anonymous men pee all over a fountain shaped like the Czech Republic. Eventually we stumbled into the Absintherie again and got absinthe cocktails.
That night, rather than pay money to go on a pub crawl ending in the Five Story Club, rep’d as central Europe’s best nightclub (they leave the Cross Club out of the pub crawls), the group from the Cross Club the night before and I went to the Old Town separately. One had a Macedonian friend living in Prague, and he showed us some nice bars there, the best of which was Harley’s, an underground Rock and Roll bar. It wasn’t underground in the cultural sense but the literal sense. It was a fun, relaxed, but very loud place where you could sing along to all the songs and it attracted a crowd I liked much better than the one at the Cross Club, where people went to be underground in the cultural sense, and to do drugs. I passed by a table filled with tough, bald, leather-wearing whisky-drinking middle-aged German bikers, the kind of loveable people who might cry if you threaten to rip a child’s drawing in front of them. The biggest and toughest of them all had a garland of flowers on his head, and when I offered to take their photo it turned out he spoke Russian, too. I have no memory of how we managed to figure this out after twenty seconds of talking, but our brief friendship burned like a bright star before I returned to my table.
As with any place, night life can be very fun if you know where to go, and based on what I heard the next morning I wouldn’t recommend the Five Story Club, especially on weekends where it’s packed from floors to ceilings with really young foreigners (I guess that’s a good solution). Prague’s true treasure is its architecture, which is pure inspiration and/or fun for anyone who likes looking at old buildings. You’ll probably need photos to remind you of it later on, though. I found this really awesome site all about Prague’s architecture, for those who like that sort of thing.
I’d recommend Prague to anyone. Just never in the summer. I imagine it’s much more bearable, and probably hauntingly beautiful, during the winter. Then you might get a chance to see the Charles Bridge with its old statues covered in snow and free of other people.