I now sit suspended 12 kilometers in the air, overlooking the Baltic sea. I am bound for my next big trip to coastal Spain. In keeping with the chronological events of my travels, however, I will first recall my previous three-week adventure to Czech Republic, Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. First up: the splendid, castle-ridden Czech Republic!
Ah, the Czech Republic. Where to begin? A country boasting stunning Baroque, Gothic, and Renaissance architecture. One that contains the most castles in the world with upwards of 2,000; its capital the most touristy city I’ve ever encountered. And the people – quite a riddle in and of themselves! Unfriendly towards strangers (i.e. silly star-struck student tourists like myself) but the sweetest and most generous towards foreigners with whom they receive an opportunity to spend time with.
Our three-week adventure through four countries in the heart of Europe began in the popular tourist destination of Prague, where we couch surfed for three consecutive nights with a very kindly if somewhat awkward cheese-and-beer-loving Czech. Called Mirek, he remains one of the most selfless and caring people I have ever had the fortune to meet. From buying us Czech cheese and local Czech beer, an experience in and of itself, to trusting us with his apartment keys and informing us about Prague, all while expecting next to nothing besides a friendly evening chat in return, he made my experience in Prague that much more authentic and memorable. Of course, after wishing Mirek a jovial goodbye in the mornings, we would venture into the city to explore all that the city could offer us in a mere three days. We toured the Prague Castle (the biggest castle in the world, mind you!), hiked up a picturesque hill full of spring blossoms to the Petřín Lookout Tower (what looks like the Eiffel Tower’s smaller, twice-removed cousin), developed our Czech palate with a little gastronomical tour through the colorful Easter-themed market stalls, bars, and restaurants (more chocolate bunnies than I could count!), and of course attended the free walking tour (as we do in every major city that offers it!). In fact, the free walking tours (which aren’t exactly free if you’re a decent tip-bestowing human being) prove to be one of my favorite aspects of each major European cities I visit! In them, I learn about the history, culture, and more with enthusiastic young guides. For example, I learned that Kafka, a renowned, disturbed Czech-born German-speaking Jewish writer (think the Czech version of Edgar Allen Poe when it comes to writing style) lived in a house that was also inhabited by Einstein. We also heard the various local legends, such as that of the clay golem, who has morphed into a sort of mascot of Prague. Still yet, we learned of the defenestration of unpopular Catholic nobles, the story behind Prague’s astronomical clock, in addition to other, less light-hearted stories. One of these stories, as related by our guide, had to do with World War II. It detailed the heart-wrenching yet inspiring story of the Jewish woman named Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, who gave children therapeutic art lessons from within the Terezín ghetto between 1942 and 1944, allowing them to temporarily forget the atrocities around them while encouraging them to write and draw out their dreams and aspirations. Our small group of tourists were silent for what felt like tens of minutes after our guide told us that only about 250 of the more than 12,000 children survived past 1944, most of them having been sent to Auschwitz. Their drawings, full of hope and life, were hidden by Dicker-Brandeis before she was sent to join her husband in Auschwitz, and are displayed in the Pinkas Synagogue within the Jewish Museum in Prague today. These often paradoxically colorful and jubilant drawings are a poignant reminder of the tragic fate of Bohemian and Moravian Jews during the Second World War.
We then learned that the 500 year old synagogues in Prague (which are rare finds in Europe due to WWII), such as the Old-New and Spanish synagogues, remain unharmed from the second world war because the despicable Nazi called Heinrich (the one behind the “final solution”), wanted to preserve them as a “museum of an extinct race”. Ironically, Heinrich ended up dying due to his own racism and intolerance. When he needed a blood transfusion after an assassination attempt, he refused Czech blood and stubbornly awaited Aryan blood, dying in the meantime. As you can see, the stories about the cities add a unique touch to every city, allowing you to put the place you are visiting into a more historical and geographical perspective. The tour proved an excellent way to spend our first full day in Prague, but it did relate some heavy topics that weighed on our psyches for a considerable while. We decided to try to lighten up with some delicious trdelnik. Tredelnik is a hollow, cylindrical pastry cooked rotisserie-style over several slow-burning coals and doused in cinnamon sugar – delicious!
The next leg of our journey included an escape from the ever-bustling city with a stay in the countryside of the Czech Republic. We chose the small town of Břeclav (the name of which I still cannot pronounce to this day) because of the stunning Lednice Castle nearby. After exploring the castle and its expansive grounds, we went bar-hopping with yet another open-minded and accommodating Czech host. Funnily enough, when Martina (our host) ordered a beer and instead received a latte, she simply joked that it’s always the guest’s fault in Czechia, not the server’s fault as she obligingly drank the coffee confection that she was just moments ago telling us she strongly dislikes. After our confused responses, she calmly explained that contrary to what we are used to in the U.S., in Czechia, the servers aren’t nearly as friendly or responsive. She told us that this is probably due to the communist past of Czechia. When everyone had jobs and nobody had to try particularly hard to keep said jobs, servers apparently became quite lazy. Thus, this conspicuous social norm embedded itself into the very cultural thread of the country. This cultural norm was so new to me, being from the U.S. where servers and employees, often scared for their future job security, unfailingly plaster on an often fake smile and ask you about your entire life story. But in Czechia, the servers couldn’t care less about who you are or even what you want – be it beer or latte!
Stay tuned for my blog post detailing my long-anticipated visit to Austria, Germany, and Switzerland! Also, I’m looking to improve each blog post I write, so if you have any suggestions or comments, such as content ideas or critiques, I’d be much obliged to read them! For now, my plane is touching down in Barcelona, so I must be going. Uvidíme se později! and soon, ¡Hasta leugo!