The third and last city on our agenda: Prague! In recent conversations, Prague has been mentioned as a spectacularly beautiful and “must-see” city! I was very excited when it became apart of our itinerary for this trip. After a magical few days in Austria, we headed off by train from Salzburg to Prague. Thankfully we made both trains without any problems. As it turns out, my meticulous and arguably over the top planning tendencies have made our trip run quite smoothly!
What a contrast to Austria! While their histories are very intertwined and their boarders touch, I found the Czech Republic to be very different from Austria. As our train entered the Czech Republic we started noticing the Czech words on buildings and hearing their spoken language on the loudspeaker. While German was definitely a foreign language to us, it shares similar roots with English and so it seemed more approachable. Czech on the other hand had a distinctive eastern European sound and was completely foreign to us. Based on the lack of English from the train manager, we assumed (and ended up assuming correctly) that people in the Czech Republic generally do not speak English as well as the Austrians but we still managed to get by alright!
I had no idea what to expect from Prague except for stunning architecture. Prior to this trip, I knew essentially nothing about the history of Prague or the Czech Republic or anything about their culture. Michelle and I did some research before arriving to Prague, picking the sites we wanted to see, and we downloaded more of Rick Steve’s tour guides so that we could become better informed.
We got off the train and made our way to another beautiful Hilton hotel! Again, we received the perks of the lovely executive lounge and were greeted with a bowl of fresh fruit, nuts, yogurt, and a pastry. On our initial ride form the train station to the hotel, we were amazed by our brief glances at the architecture. We quickly settled in and per our routine, asked the hotel to mark the Christmas markets on a map for us! Prague also has Christmas markets and we were excited to see what they would be like in such a different city.
We had a wonderful first night exploring the Christmas markets. While beautifully decorated and the concept similar, we found these markets to have a different feel. They lacked Austria’s distinctly cozy personality – the hot drinks were sold in paper cups instead of mugs and the goods for sale were not as unique and few were handmade, it felt a bit more touristy. However, they had their own personality! The main square of Prague was busy and lively! The stalls and the square were decked out in lights and festive décor. The smells of ham roasting on a rotisserie, sausages grilling in giant cast iron pans, and cinnamon sugar doughy cylinders of deliciousness cooking over an open fire flowed through the open air of the square. While the market sold all of the hot drinks we have grown to love, they had their own specialty: hot mead. Michelle was familiar with the drink, but this was my first time tasting fermented honey, and oh was it delicious!!
We had a lovely night becoming acquainted with Prague and woke up early on Friday ready to take the city by storm! We started by walking up to Prague Castle to begin our day of touring with this prominent spot. After walking up a couple hundred steps we were bummed to find out that the historical cathedral in the castle complex was closed for the day. We decided to save our tour of the castle for the next morning, snapped some photos of the incredible view, and headed back down to the remarkable Charles Bridge to start the Rick Steves walking tour of Prague. We learned so much about the rich and fascinating history of Prague and the Czech Republic. This country has encountered many twists and turns over the centuries, constantly fighting to assert itself as an independent country. Through it all, the country has regained its independence and is making great strides.
Prague is prospering; the energy is clearly that of a country on an upswing and the rest of the world has caught on to the incredible splendor that Prague has to offer. The city has definitely become a significant tourist destination and we could identify the obvious tourist traps: lots of street carts selling the same collections of knick knacks, many souvenir shops some of which selling things that are not even native to Czech like Russian dolls, and so many people everywhere gawking at the amazing sites. While the touristy feel can be a nuisance for those seeking a local experience, I understood immediately why people want to come visit, Prague it is one of the most architecturally beautiful cities I have ever been too.
One of the reasons Prague stands out as such a disctincly stunning city is that, unlike many other European cities, it was spared the bombings of the World Wars. While the city underwent siege by both the Germans and the Soviets and existed as a dark and depressing city for many years, the structure of the city was preserved and stands a glowing portrayal of its rich history.
I fell in love with the spectacular structures and intricate facades of the medieval, baroque, renessaince, and art nouveau architechture. Yes, Prague has maintained architecture through all of these periods and as result, my eyes were constantly catching beautiful sight after beautiful sight lining the streets of the city. Remarkably, but not unintentionally, the different styles of architecture blend beautifully with one another. We learned that with each new building, in each new era, the architects prioritized blending their unique creations with the preexisting structures. I found the colors of these buildings richer and deeper when compared to the more pastel tones of Austria. In fact, despite the shared boarders, I found next to no Austrian or German influence in Prague, the city had more of an eastern European flair.
There is a rich religious history in Prague as well. The city was full of statues of religious figures, gleaming church spires, and the most impressive St. Vitus Cathedral. It is a predominately Catholic city but we were very excited to learn that the city also has deep Orthodox roots! Many of you have most likely heard the Christmas carol, “Good Saint Wenceslaus” but did you know that he was a Czech native, a great king and patron saint of Prague? I did not either until I started learning about this city. He is very beloved by this city commemorated through the popular St. Wenceslaus square and statue and his body is buried in St. Vitus Cathedral. Through researching more about St. Wenceslaus, I learned that he is also considered a saint in the Orthodox Church along with his beloved grandmother St. Lyudmila. We were amazed to find out that St. Lyudmila was baptized by saints Cyril and Methodius. Saints Cyril and Methodios are big saints in the Orthodox Church most well known for spreading Christianity to the Slavic nations and coming up with the first written Slavic alphabet. They serve as models for effective missionary work as they went in to the Slavic nations and instead of imposing their own language and cultural ideals on the people, they came up with an alphabet that fit their native language! Now I have learned their story extensively over my years in seminary, but I had never connected the dots as to where exactly this all took place. Well, much of their work took place in Prague, with the family of St. Wenceslaus. They are beloved in Prague also and we found incredible stained glass windows and woodcarvings depicting them in St. Vitus Cathedral. Saints Cyril and Methodios were originally from Thessaloniki and their relics are kept in a church here. The relics are taken out for people to venerate on Sundays during liturgy. We have been wanting to go to this church on a Sunday for the past few months but have not been able too. Just by chance, we went with Michelle the Sunday before we left on this trip. At that point, I did not know the significance of these saints in Prague. We started our journey venerating their relics and ended it in the city where they did their mission work. What and amazing way to bring our trip full circle!
The final piece of history incredibly moving to us was the Jewish roots in Prague. When the Nazis invaded Prague, they took the significant population of Jews captive. In a nearby town Hitler started a “model” camp that was intended to prove to the rest of Europe that he wasn’t crossing too many lines with regards to his treatment towards the Jews. This of course was not remotely a five star hotel but a camp where while they were fed and the children were allowed to attend school, all other freedoms were stripped away. At the same time Hitler started building a museum in Prague. His plan for this museum was to display the race that he planned to completely wipe out; it was intended to be a Jewish museum after the Jewish race no longer existed. We were stunned and got chills as we listened to the commentary on this museum. This museum now stands to share the long rich history of the Jews in Prague, a population of about 80,000 who were eventually killed, but a population that Hitler did not successfully wipe out, thanks to the good forces of this world. Today, there is a Jewish quarter situated in Prague that contains several Synagogues that have been converted into museums and a Jewish cemetery all telling the devastating story of the years of the Holocaust in Prague. We were deeply moved during this tour. The most striking part for me was the memorial synagogue where the names of all 80,000 Jews killed are hand painted on the walls as a way to commemorate their death. It is an incredibly moving sight to see. Another remarkable display was hundreds of pictures painted by the young Jewish children of the camp outside of Prague. In their school there was a remarkable teacher who implemented a type of art therapy for the children to maintain their spirits. The result now is an amazing display where we could share in the emotions of the children of the Holocaust. The whole experience was so moving, my heart was full of sorrow and thankful for the courageous forces that brought this terrible era to an end.
After a full day of touring, we went back to the hotel, had a complimentary happy hour cocktail, and made our way back out for another evening of Christmas markets. It was December 5th, the eve of St. Nicholas day and we had heard that there would be some St. Nicholas festivities near the square that evening. As we made our way back towards the square we were excited to encounter several clusters of dressed up characters. In each cluster there was one St. Nicholas dressed not like Santa but like the Western European depictions of him in a Bishop’s outfit and staff. There was also an angel and a devil in every cluster. Again, we saw the terrifying character of Krampus showing up in Prague! We asked a local to share a little more about this tradition and we came to find out that the trio walks up to young children on the streets and asks if they were good or bad. If they were good, they sing a song to St. Nicholas and he gives them a treat! I suppose if any admitted to being bad, the devil character would give them coal but I doubt in the face of chocolate that any child admits to being bad! It was quite a sight to see this happening all over the city! There was also a big outdoor children’s show on a stage in the main square which concluded with the children receiving gifts. The most impressive spectacle however was the show that happened well after the children’s show. We noticed a crowd gathering near the famous clock and so we pushed our way through the crowd following the sounds of the loud drums. We were surprised to find St. Nicholas on stilts surrounded by several devils and angels in the midst of an intricate and intense fire performance!!! What a sight to see! It was a fun night of exploring and experiencing local customs!
The next morning we toured the extensive Prague Castle complex including St. Vitus Cathedral. It was an outstanding way to end our visit in Prague. The complex is extremely impressive and the Cathedral was just stunning and packed full of interesting both religious and political history.
We said a sad goodbye to this gem of a city and made our way to Vienna for the final night of our trip. We stayed with Michelle’s friends Lauren and Tice who are from the states but living in Vienna for a couple years for work. It was fun to hear how they are adjusting to living in a foreign city and they offered us incredible hospitality! We got to peruse our beloved Vienna Christmas Markets one more time before making our way back to our respective homes, Michelle to D.C. and me, back to Thess!
What a trip! I can hardly believe all that we saw and did and I am so grateful for beautiful adventures, wonderful conversation, quality time with a dear friend whom I don’t get to see enough in the states, a visit to long anticipated destinations, new lessons in history, and a widening of my global perspective. I am reminded of the beauty of travel in that it allows us to have a better understanding of this small and yet very very big world we live in. It was really wonderful to be able to branch outside of Greece and travel some of western Europe from the perspective of my time living in Greece. I am so beyond grateful for all of these amazing opportunities I have had over the past three months and especially right now for this truly perfect trip. Now, home to my incredible husband whom I have missed SO much!!!!!!
But first, a few more pictures of the amazing market food we had in Prague: