Friday, July 9, 2010

Prague, Czech Republic

We spent the weekend of June 18 -20th in Prague, Czech Republic, and I wanted to share our experience with others considering visiting this amazing city!  
We flew from London Stansted into Prague early Friday morning - flight was great and arrival/customs was a breeze.  Upon arrival we stopped at an ATM in the main airport halls to take out some cash, and purchased a ticket on the cedaz shuttle bus that would drop us off directly in front of the Marriott, at Namesti Republiky.   The overall service of the shuttle was great, but I will mention that the first shuttle that went past was full so we had to wait another 30 minutes for the next shuttle - not a huge deal, but we were eager to check in and start exploring - sitting outside of an airport for an hour wasn’t ideal, and we probably would just take a taxi to save time in the future.
Upon arrival at the Marriott we checked in, our room was ready, and dropped off our bags.  Grabbed a quick lunch in the Marriott hotel and then headed off to explore.  Our day started with a walk from our hotel past Wenceslas Square to the Tram #22 stop.  This tram is a great way to get orientation to the city of Prague and stops at most of the main attractions and areas of Prague.  We rode the tram into the Castle Quarter to the Pohorelec stop.   From here, we walked over to the Strahov Monastery and Library, and downhill through the gate to the monastery gardens - this was a highlight of the day and some of the most amazing city views we have seen.  After taking in the views we walked along to the Castle Square and then on into Prague Castle, which is more like a complex than an actual castle.  Within the castle gates, we visited St Vitus Cathedral, the Old Royal Palace, the Basilica and Convent of St George and the Golden Lane.  
Once we left Prague Castle, we found our way down a staircase that led us into Prague’s Little Quarter, and while this area wasn’t full of tourist attraction, it was a very charming neighborhood that did not feel as crowded as it actually was.  On our way, we found a great viewing area of the Charles Bridge, down by the water / shore - awesome photo opportunity.  In the Little Quarter, we visited the Lennon Wall, where graffiti has been since 1980 when John Lennon was killed.  For a long time, police would remove the graffiti every night and it would reappear the next day. This was also a gathering place for peace-seekers in Prague until their independence came in 1989. Kampa Island, Little Quarter Square, and the Church of St Nicholas other places we toured during our time in Little Quarter.  
We left Little Quarter by crossing the Charles Bridge, got some great daytime views from the bridge and enjoyed the various performers on the bridge.  The other side of the bridge leads you to the Old Town Square through Karlova Street - a zig-zagged, narrow street full of tourists, tourist traps, and marionette dolls. We arrived into Old Town Square with perfect timing as the astronomical clock was just about to strike on the hour, so we joined with other crowds and waited -  the “show” was underwhelming, but it was a bit magical as we had a guidebook that explained all of the figures and what each meant.  Lucky for us, the town square had a jumbo screen setup in the middle for the World Cup and USA was playing!  So we grabbed some food from the street vendors and enjoyed the sites, game and great weather for a while.  While in town square, be sure to look for the Tyn Church, the 27 crosses, Church of St Nicolas, and the Jan Hus Memorial.  
We were pretty worn out at this point, so we headed back to our hotel, stopping at the Billa Supermarket for some water and other things we needed for the weekend.  After  quick nap, we were ready to head out for dinner.  Our concierge at the Marriott was a huge help and arranged reservations for us at Hergetova Cihelna (recommended to me by a friend) - this place has THE MOST amazing view of Charles Bridge at night!  We sat outside, right by the water - our tables we covered which was a good thing since it started to rain, and they also have blankets at each chair in case it gets cool.  The food was not the best, but it was definitely a great experience and worth the views.  We left the restaurant when it stopped raining and headed back across Charles Bridge into the Old Town. 
That night, we took some really cool pictures of Prague and its architecture on the bridge and the while in Old Town - we headed to M1 Lounge and had drinks and hung out for a while - pretty cool spot.  
Saturday morning, we woke up pretty early as we were scheduled to tour Terezin Concentration Camp with Martin Tours - we usually do not like to be part of a tour group but considering our short time here in Prague and the distance from Prague to Terezin we opted for a tour because we really could not afford to waste time or get lost!  This was a great tour, and it was not too crowded at all - there were maybe 15 people on our tour.  You can read much more about Terezin hereTerezin and brought 60,000 Jews here to form a “model” concentration camp.  This was the place that Hitler would show in propaganda and to international organizations like the Red Cross to prove that he was not harming anyone.  He would also force the Jews at Terezin to be part of propaganda videos, were they were forced to pretend they were enjoying themselves, play soccer, and say that this was a great place.  
This is a sobering place and very moving.  Some of the areas that we will never forget include:
  • The children’s museum, where the artwork of the 100,000 children who were held here is stored.  Only 100 of these children survived.  
  • The washroom that was used for show, the prisoners were never allowed to actually use it and no water was connected to the sinks.
  • The shower stalls that were used to fool the Jews - they got used to the idea of communal showers here at Terezin and then when they were moved to Auschwitz they  had no clue that the shower stall were actually gas chambers that would send them to their deaths. 
  • The sign above the prison cells reads “Arbeit Macht Frei” - “Work Makes You Free”...
  • The execution hall and grounds - this was dark, narrow 15 minute walk through a hallway that led to execution grounds - prisoners would take this walk prior to their execution.  
I recommend this trip to everyone who visits Prague - Prague is an amazing city with lots to do, but I think we all need to see this so we never forget what happened.  
When we returned back to Prague from our day trip, we took a quick nap and relaxed for a bit before heading back out to explore Prague.  We climbed to the top of one of bridge towers for a photo-op, and stopped at the John of Nepomuk statue and brass relief on the bridge to rub the “magic” spot and make our one wish - we’ll keep you posted on if our wishes come true :)  We grabbed a quick bite to eat, had some Cream and Dream Ice Cream on Karlova street and called it a night.
The next morning, we headed to visit the Jewish Quarter - this is the area where Jews were allowed to store their archives while the Nazis were clearing their communities and sending them to concentration camps.  We avoided the lines by buying our tickets to see all of the sites at the Maisel Synagogue instead of the Pinkas Synagogue.  We toured both synagogues, Old Jewish cemetery, the ceremonial hall and the old-new synagogue.  Perhaps, the most moving was the cemetery.  From 1439 - 1787 this was the only burial ground were Jews were allowed to bury their loved ones in Prague.  Over 12,000 people have buried here - over time, they have been buried on top of one another as the space is limited - this has led to the shifting of tombstone and the formation of a raised space because of the numbers buried.  Also quite moving were 77,297 names of the Jews moved form Prague to Auschwitz to be killed in gas chambers hand-written on the walls of the Pinkas Synagogue.
After leaving the Jewish Quarter, we walked back towards the Old Town Square, shopped a little, grabbed lunch and headed to our hotel where we took a taxi to the airport.  Prague is a beautiful city that is full of history - when we found out we were going to be living in England for a few years, of all the places I wanted to visit, I never considered Prague - however, this is definitely a place to visit if you ever get the chance!

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