“Why on earth did I book the 7 o’clock train?” Two weeks ago my twisted-like-a-pretzel logic convinced me that getting to Prague two hours earlier was of vital importance. Why you ask? I wish I could remember. Twilight transactions on the Charles Bridge? Protecting a source from certain death? Intercepting an explosive packet containing scandalous secrets that could change the world as we know it? I wish my reasons were half as glamorous. I’m sure I don’t want to remember anymore. My body is screaming bloody murder for having to wake up at 4 to make it to the train station. It feels like the train took forever to pull up to the platform. We find seats next to a quiet Italian couple. For a minute all four of us panic that we are on the wrong train. Once the feeling subsides, slumber kicks in.
Two and a half hours later we pull into Prague main station (Hlavni Nadrazi). I immediately like the way the consonants are often cluttered together in Czech, without the luxury of vowels. We are actually in Prague. We sit in the train for a measly two hours and we are in another country. How awesome is that?!
We get a three day unlimited subway and tram ticket at the Convenience store. We may have stared at the subway map a fraction of a second too long. A cop approached us asking if we would like some help. We told him we wanted to go to Dlouha Trida by tram or subway. He told us the tram station was a long way off and refused to show us the way. He insisted we take a Taxi and practically forced us into one. The cop and the driver agreed on a price and we went along. Sandeep and I have a policy where we always agree with what the cops in a foreign country say. It turned out he was taking us for a ride, the subway stop was just below the railway station. We were cheated out of a good 200 Koruna but like they say “Safety first” and “Don’t mess with cops when brown!” However, in all fairness, this was the only negative thing that happened on the whole Prague trip.
We had booked our stay at the “Old Town Hostel”(5 minutes walk from the Old Town Square). This was our first taste of the European hostel experience and I must admit we were a bit apprehensive. However, the cheerful receptionist and quirkily painted walls quickly helped put us at ease. We dropped of our luggage and decided to get breakfast at Wenceslas Square. It was a short walk and the Square was filled with tourists, which made it super easy to spot what we were looking for. One of the most touristy things to do in Prague is to eat Trdelnik at Wenceslas Square. These long, hollow bread logs are slow cooked over a coal fire and then dunked in brown sugar and served hot. The Trdelnik is more about fun than taste and the perfect antidote to Prague’s chilly fall mornings. And the sugar rush? Keeps that engine running through Prague’s cobbled streets like nobody’s business.
Next Stop: The Astronomical Clock or the Orloj. You may have heard that this is the oldest functioning astronomical clock. You would be right. You may have heard that it is the third oldest astronomical clock in the world. You would be right again. The challenge is saying something about the Orloj that has not been said before. It is one of those grand old things you have to see for yourself and then go back home and spend hours googling. For those of you who think the working of this clock is too nerdy and uninteresting to look up, please reconsider. For a mechanical device that was made more than 500 years ago, it is insane the amount of information this clock manages to convey.
The clock was built at a time when the geocentric model of the earth was still in vogue. However, working from the basic assumption that our planet was the center of the known universe, they managed to work some real magic. It has always amazed me, how much we can do with a working model until we prove it wrong. This clock manages to tell you the Central European Time (basically local time), the phase of the moon, the sidereal time, the unequal hours, the Bohemian hours and the dominant Star Sign. The fact that you had a method of keeping time in which the length of the hour changed according to the number of sunlight hours at that time of year (hence unequal hours) was strangely affecting. I notice the lengthening days in the summer only in passing, until daylight savings hits and I miss them already. This fact is driven in more forcefully when you notice the calendar dial with pictures telling you about the agricultural activities you are expected to perform at that time of year. Modern lives are lived in spite of the seasons, their coming and going dictating only our fashion and vacation choices. In the 21st century, distancing ourselves from planetary and natural rhythms is possible at a level our ancestors would find impossible to believe.
The Orloj also displays the biases that were prevalent at the time that it was built and modified. Two figures can be seen on either side of the clock face. Three of them represent qualities commonly despised at the time: a skeleton (death), a man holding up a mirror (vanity), the miser holding the bag of gold (greed or usury) and the Turk holding an instrument (pleasure). The last two, of course, are thinly-veiled stereotypes that were held to be true at the time. At the striking of the hour, death proceeds to turn the hour glass and ring his bell indicating to the others that their time is up, while they nod their heads in disbelief. You can also see two doors on top of the dial open, revealing a procession of the apostles.
Having seen the clock, we decided we would like to see the Spanish Synagogue in Prague’s Jewish Town. It is the newest of Prague’s six historic synagogues, being built in the second half of the 19th century. However, it is arguably the most beautiful with its ornate, gilded interior, every surface covered in Islamic motifs. What I have observed about the Islamic style is that the grandeur is achieved through harmony; the whole is much more than the sum of the parts. When you take it upon yourself to observe the individual details, the effect is lost. The solemnity and magnificence of the synagogue can be best appreciated by choosing a quiet spot somewhere in the middle and soaking it all in, all at once. This house of worship is also home to a museum that documents the history of Prague’s Jewish community which includes such luminaries as Gerty Cori and Franz Kafka.
And talking about Kafka, this super-interesting statue of him sitting on the shoulders of what appears to be an empty suit, happens to be just outside this synagogue.
We had heard quite a bit about the Communist History Museum at Prague and it looked like we had some time before lunch. This was a super weird and yet strangely educational experience. The museum is musty and the exhibits oddly arranged, with busts of Stalin and Lenin showing up every once in a while, just because. The atmosphere suggested endless bureaucracy and suspended time. Knick-knacks and various odds and ends were mixed in with detailed descriptions of life under the communists, ideological indoctrination and communist art. Most of the writing is laced with an edge of dark humor. In an exhibit describing the wire-tapping of civilian phone conversations, the point is made that there was clearly not enough man power to go through everything they recorded and at some point the officers just decided to entertain themselves with the more racy conversations. When we talk about the secret police and other organs of autocratic governments that limit freedom of speech, we often lose sight of the fact that a lot of ordinary people just saw these jobs as a way to earn a living, without ever considering the ideological underpinnings of their work. People adapt to “the new normal.” This is the thing about fascist governments around the world that I find most chilling. Ordinary people rather than resist, mainly survive, pull through. This is what we have evolved for over the millennia. It is deeply tragic and yet grossly comical all at once.
The museum also has a section involving the resistance in the latter half of the 20th century (the Velvet Revolution) that led to a democratic Czechoslovakia followed by the subsequent peaceful parting of ways by the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The video installations were great giving you a real feel of the spirit of the times.
It was finally time for lunch and we were looking forward to the super rich, super heavy Czech cooking that everyone had warned us about. Destination: Lokal. On the way there, we saw our only David Cerny sculpture from the entire trip:In Utero. This is pregnancy presented with all its contradictions, the ripeness, the fullness and the glory of it contrasted with its discomfort and pain. I wish I had the time to do a David Cerny spotting tour around Prague but alas, this was not to be.
Getting back to Czech yummies, the ghoulash, dumplings and vepro-knedlo-zelo (pork stew-bread dumplings-sauerkraut) at Lokal were simply superb and worth every minute of the hour of aerobics we would have to do to work it off. And the beer, you can never go wrong with Czech beer. (I’m no expert but I’m quite sure I’m right)
Escape games seem to be extremely popular around Eastern Europe. There are all sorts of academic theories doing the rounds as to why this may be. Basically, you get locked inside a room for 60 minutes and need to find a way out by solving puzzles, using lateral thinking and the like. I don’t think an academic theory is required to explain this one. Crystal Maze in real life? Where do I sign?! We had booked one of the rooms at Mind Maze and truth be told this was the part of our trip we had been waiting for all day. I don’t want to give too much away but I would recommend this place to anyone who goes to Prague. The rush that comes from beating the clock in that enclosed space is something else. And credit to the Mind Maze team for setting up the room. At no point did it become cheesy or over-the-top and the tension in the room was so tangible, it could be tasted.
We rounded off our day by visiting the museum of Torture which was extremely disturbing. We have come a long way as a species, let’s leave it at that. On the way back, we had a glimpse of the Fred and Ginger building. It was a bit underwhelming but it does look like what it’s supposed to look like.
We took the metro to the Praha 2 neighborhood for dinner. Sokolovna was fancier than Lokal but Sandeep and I preferred the no-nonsense environment at the latter. We ordered Koleno (enormous roasted Pork knuckle served with pickled vegetables and relish) and Svickova na smetane (beef, vegetable puree, cranberry sauce and sour cream). The latter is supposed to be the one dish that is truly of the Czech Republic with absolutely no influence from its neighbors. While we enjoyed the pork knuckle, it was enormous, and tiny people that we are we could never work up an appetite equal to that task. Svickova na smetane is sort of American Thanksgivingy but to be perfectly honest, I prefer the American turkey-gravy-stuffing version. In my defense, seven years in the US of A has to rub off on you somewhere.
We worked off the pork knuckle walking around Wenceslas Square and when our legs gave in we dragged ourselves back to the hostel and slept. Our dreams may or may not have involved enormous pork knuckles strapped to various medieval torture instruments. The details escape us right now.