Our late night arrival in Prague was made easier by our AirBnB host, who picks up her guests for free from the local train and bus stations. After arriving in a lot of cities and hauling bags on foot, or seeking out taxis whose rates and routes you have to watch, or waiting for Uber drivers stuck in traffic, it was pretty luxurious to have someone waiting for us.
The next morning, we hopped on the very nice tram system to bring us to the historic center. As we wandered around the old churches, we ended up near the Prague orloj, the city’s famed astronomical clock, just a few minutes before the hour. A crowd had gathered underneath, all gazing up with anticipation. As the clock began to chime, a grinning skeleton representing death tugged on a rope while portals opened at the top and 2 of the 12 apostles peered out to examine the hoard below. Though the few seconds of activity was a little anticlimactic, given the size of the anticipatory mob, it was an amusing diversion. The clock itself dates back to 1410, making it one of the oldest astronomical clocks in the world that’s still in operation.
During WWII, Prague put up little resistance when the Germans arrived, meaning that Prague’s historic center is largely intact. Though the streets are not nearly as muddled and confusing as some of the twisting avenues of other cities, Prague has a charming array of churches, synagogues and colorful residential buildings running along both sides of the river. The Charles Bridge, a great stone expanse completed in 1402, spans the Vltava river and provides a beautiful pedestrian-only walkway, covered with sculptures and local artists selling photographs, paintings, sculptures and jewelry.
Naturally, as in other cities, we stopped to investigate the street food. My first food cart of interest had enormous hams rotating on a spit over open coals. The sign proclaimed “Old Prague Ham,”, and my request for a portion resulted in a man picking up a knife whose size would rival many swords, and slashing off a portion of meat as big as my head. Served with a couple slices of hearty rye bread, I think I amused our Chinese tablemates by declining to share my meal with Jenn and downing the whole thing in just a few minutes, thoroughly enjoying one of the juiciest hams I’ve ever had. Another classic street dessert we saw everywhere was trdelnik, a type of cake that is wrapped around a spit, cooked over coals, and then sliced into cylinders. Often, they are served filled or coated with whipped cream, fruit, chocolate, or ice cream. It’s definitely a tasty treat – similar to fried dough, but without all the grease and heaviness.
In an attempt to avoid the ever-present crowds, we headed out early one morning to wander around Prague Castle. Officially listed as the largest ancient castle in the world, construction on the castle was begun in 870 AD and its long history means that virtually every major architectural style is represented inside. Immediately after passing through the rear entrance of the castle, we were greeted by the stunning St. Vitus Cathedral, whose ornate stonework had no inch undecorated, and whose detailed and delicate spires positively bristled from the roofline.
On the same side of the river, just across the bridge from Old Town, the roughly 63-meter (200-foot) tall Petrin Lookout Tower sits atop Petrin Hill, part of an expansive greenspace that offers numerous walking paths and gardens. The steep walk up the hill and subsequent ascent up the tower’s stairs was rewarded by an amazing 360-degree view of Prague. The tickets were 120 CZK (around $5 USD) each, but the panoramic view was definitely worth the small cost.
We also discovered that our apartment sat practically in the courtyard of Castle Vysehrad, a fortress built in the 10th century that’s just a few kilometers south of Old Town’s center. Even more delightful, we found that this castle was far less popular with visitors, and we frequently had entire areas to ourselves to enjoy quite a beautiful view of the city. Contained within the castle walls is the Rotunda of St. Martin, the oldest surviving building in Prague, dating back to the latter half of the 11th century.
One thing we have become accustomed to in Europe, but which seemed especially prevalent in Prague, is entrance fees for seemingly every building. While I’m sure it’s not a big deal for most short-term travelers, $10-15 per person for each entrance ticket meant that we often admired these buildings from the courtyards or gardens, rather than inside. For long-term travel, we’ve had to choose a few museums and monuments along the way that are of the most interest to us, as we could easily spend two weeks’ budget just touring every major castle or cathedral. However, we did splurge on tickets for one of Prague’s popular classical music concerts, typically performed inside the city’s historic churches and symphony halls. It seemed that every venue had its own concert schedule, so we selected a program that sounded good, and ultimately took in a performance at the Church of St. Nicholas in the historic Old Town square. It was a wonderful performance, with a brilliant trumpet soloist accompanying the organ player and soprano, and a beautiful venue.
For our last day in the Czech Republic, we took a trip by train to Kutna Hora, a town about 85 km (50 miles) outside the capital, and the home of the Sedlec Ossuary, colloquially known as the “Bone Church.” A cemetery on the grounds of the church was first part of a Cistercian monastery, which was founded in 1142. In 1278, a local abbot returned with some soil he collected from the crucifixion site during his pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and distributed it throughout the cemetery, making the resting place a highly desirable site for burial. Later, in the 14th century, the small church was built and the graveyard was expanded to provide space for more than 30,000 victims of the Black Death plague epidemics. Then, in the 15th century, the graveyard was reduced in size, with bones that were exhumed from the graves brought into the church. There’s a legend that a semi-blind monk artistically arranged the bones and, in doing so, got his eyesight back during this period; however, it’s not really known who first arranged the bones. Regardless, it’s a rather macabre place, with skulls stacked into pyramids, draperies made from femurs, and hip bones arranged in artistic flowers, all alongside sculptures of cheerful cherubs blowing trumpets, or Mary keeping tender watch over a cradle. A somewhat eerie, yet interesting, way to end our stay in Prague.