We arrived in Prague via 2 trains from Salzburg. Along the way we passed through beautiful hills of Austria and it seemed that the moment we crossed the border the scenery changed; timber yards, small factories and barren woodlands. Yes, we were definitely in the Czech Republic.
The Czech Republic, previously Czechoslovakia, became an independent country in 1993. For a long time they under the Communist rule of the Soviets which unfortunately did not do much for their economic situation. The country was supposed to have adopted the ‘Euro’ back in 2012 however they decided to stick with their much weaker currency, the ‘Czech Krona’. $1AUD = CZK20. This is great for tourists, but not so much for the Czechs. Now tertiary education is completely free to Czechs and Slovakians which is absolutely fantastic, except in the cases where people constant enrol into one subject every year purely for the ‘student’ status, giving them significant discounts almost everywhere in the country.
So enough about all that, what’s Prague like? Like most European cities, Prague has an Old Town and a New Town. The New Town is considered to be the city centre however all the monuments and tourist attractions are located in Old Town; this is where we stayed. The buildings are absolutely stunning and there is quite a variety of different architecture styles including Renaissance, Gothic, Racoca, Cubism and much more (don’t ask me to explain what any of them actually mean). The street that we stayed in, Karlovy Lane, is the most famous tourist street offering souvenirs galore ranging from printed artwork, magnets, postcards, scarves and strangely enough Russian Babushka dolls and fur hats (probably came about during the Soviet era).
As great as we thought the city is, we quickly realised that it was there to just dazzle every foreigner that visited to hide the fact that the rest of the country is in pretty bad shape. The only reason we figured this out was by getting out of the city, which most tourists don’t have the time to do. Every train stop we visited in the countryside seemed delapitated, the towns were all quite small and often there would be vacant and vandalised buildings on every street corner. This was the real Czech Republic. But don’t get me wrong, seeing this didn’t dampen our experience, in fact it made it better. It opened our eyes to the fact that every country has its secrets and in order to truly travel, a visit to the capital city is simply not enough.
We were fortunate enough to have good weather to do two hikes in the Bohemian countryside; one through a national park and another through a beautiful forest. These are the parts of the Czech Republic that are not publicized too well, but they should be. The country’s hiking paths are some of the best in the world as they are fantastically well marked with colour codes and this is maintained by a group of thousands of volunteers all over the country who love to hike.
Another highlight of our time here was a visit to the UNESCO Heritage Town called ‘Czesky Krumlov’. This is a medieval town surrounded by a man made moat and its entrance is made up of a towering walking bridge. This is one of the places we visited where our jaws instantly dropped to the ground in awe of how beautiful it was. It was about a 2.5 hour drive and definitely worth it!
One of the most unusual places we’ve visited has got to be the Sedlec Ossuary (i.e. the Bone Church). It lies in a small town called Sedlec just outside of Kutna Hora. We arrived here by two trains and followed Google Maps and the trail of tourists who came here solely to visit this site (obvious as there is nothing else in this town). It’s a much smaller church than I had imagined, I could almost describe it more as a chapel. From the moment we entered we were immediately confronted by the bones, so many bones. The story goes, a blind monk wanted to make a memorial to the 40,000 people who were buried at the site of the church and so he arranged the bones in a decorative fahion. Not sure how much of it is true, but a cool story nonetheless. One of the most striking features of the church is the giant bone chandelier which is suspended by a network of mandibles (jaw bones) dangling from the ceiling. Certainly a place to visit, if you’re not to weirded out by it all!
Another one of the day trips from Prague was to one of the Jewish concentration camps called Terezin. As opposed to Aushewitz the purpose of the camp was not to kill people but to hold large amount of people for a people of time, (mostly 2-8 months) before transporting them to execution camps such as Ausherwitz in Poland. In total there were over 155,000 people who passed through Terezin. This is one of the most somber experiences we’ve had with any trip. It had similarities to the Killing Fields and S21 Prison in Cambodia however on a much more systematic level.
Now most European cities that we’ve visited have had their fair share of beggars, but there is something about the beggars in Prague that left us with many questions. The beggars were all cleverly placed around the major tourist attractions in Old Town. Most of the time there would be a man in his 30’s kneeling and bent over completely in a prayer position next to his sleeping dog. Now the dog is ALWAYS sleeping. So it got us wondering, why are all the dogs sleeping in broad day light? In Asia, it is widely known that the female beggars holding a sleeping baby have often either drugged the baby or fed it copious amounts of Vodka to keep it asleep. Is this what has happened here? I did some research and couldn’t find out too much information, though there are a lot of theories going around. Some say they are genuine beggars, others say a lot of them are on the methadone program and are begging just for some extra cash and there are those who think they are part of a gang targeting unsuspecting tourists. Very hard to say and speculate, but we did see one get arrested on the famous Charles Bridge for begging, so I do suspect there could be something criminal involved.
So that’s a wrap for Prague, certainly an eye opening experience and one we thoroughly enjoyed. Next stop Krakow!
Til next time
Ann & Jason xo