Praha, the beautiful

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As an imaginative little girl, many of my dreams were filled with imagery of far off lands with medieval castles and royalty. As an adult, I conceded the fact that these dreams only existed in fiction. My time spent in Prague, however, proved that there is a place on earth as magical as any I had ever imagined.

The essence of Prague (or Praha, as the Czechs call it) is olde world, almost mythical – but the culture is incredibly diverse and modern. I don’t know if I’ve ever been to a place that truly captures the “best of both worlds” so well. We had purposely saved the best for last, as we had been prefaced that Prague was a city with such beauty and so much to explore. After a long trek from Austria, we arrived to the capital city center of the Czech Republic by train.

Prague was very easy to navigate on foot, so we were able to scope out the geography in the first few days and make a plan of action. On our first evening, we got lost looking for a beer garden and ended up in Prague II, a residential region just outside the city center. It ended up being a welcomed accident, as we stumbled into a local park nestled on the side of a hill overlooking the Prague skyline. The lawn was filled with lovers, families and locals picnicking for the sunset. We decided to blend in and observe how real Bohemians lived. We got a beer from the open-air beer garden in the park and found ourselves a spot on the lawn. We watched the sun set behind the tips of the castles that speckled the skyline of city center. I enjoy any opportunity to feel immersed in an authentic, intimate way to get acquainted with a new city.

We spent the following days touring the city – which had so much history to offer. The astronomical clock was erected in the midst of the busiest square in the city; the epicenter of all the excitement. The square felt like a European version of Times Square (mixed with a scene from Game of Thrones.) Street performers, food vendors, open-air cafes and live music added to the charm of the space. We enjoyed morning coffee and evening beers here as we planned which neighborhood we would explore next. The square was the cultural hub for travelers, and since tourism is such a staple of the local economy, we met many free tour guides and helpful local students who graciously shared history and sightseeing insight with us.

Prague was another city with profound significance in World War II and the holocaust. Due to its proximity to the Soviet Union, this city was less destroyed than other cities we had visited. Although few Jews remain in modern-day Praha, the old Jewish district was extremely well-preserved with 7 historic synagogues. We spend a day exploring this quarter alone – visiting the oldest synagogue in Europe, an opulent Spanish synagogue, and a makeshift cemetery with more than 100,000 headstones – each site with its own story. I was fascinated, but also absorbed the stories heavily – often having to take a moment in silence to digest the thousands of names and headstones in the holocaust memorial. Like Budapest, I felt that it was enlightening and a moving experience, that helped give a deeper perspective of the history I had only read in books.

The architecture of Prague was among the most beautiful I had ever seen. Narrow cobblestone streets led through colorful buildings in Romanesque and Gothic style. Although Prague is now one of the most agnostic nations, the streets were filled with impressive churches and cathedrals, which are primarily used as concert halls. A beautiful river, with footbridges, including the most famous – Charles Bridge – allowed us a gorgeous vantage point of the riverside, also split the city.

The city is perched beneath a massive castle, which is used today as the parliament building. We spent an entire day scaling the lush gardens on the hillside and exploring the grand castle, then meandering our way back to Prague 1. Along the way, we observed monuments dedicated to the intellectual staples of Bohemia, namely Franz Kafka, one of my favorite authors. I could understand why so many artists and authors felt inspired by this place.

While the architecture, history and physical topography of Prague were all impressive; the highlight of the entire trip was certainly the people. There was a warmth of hospitality in this city. I was most excited when I found out I would be able to cross paths with a familiar face. During college, I became immediate friends with Alinka, who grew up in both Budapest and Prague (and was an invaluable resource in planning this trip.) As Alinka and I became inseparable best friends, I began to feel like I knew her extended family, although I had never gotten to meet them. I had always hoped I would get to visit the places and people she spoke so highly about.

While in Prague, we were able to meet up with her mother, Barbara, which was such a precious experience for me. I felt instantly connected to her, as if I had known her for years, and she was a more generous host than I could have ever imagined. Barbara took us to a chic rooftop bar with expansive views and we laughed over glasses of Rose´ while the sun set. She left us with endless advice, maps, a local phone and passes for every attraction in the city – which was helpful beyond belief  (which I should have expected (because Alinka has the same giving soul!)

I was already so thrilled to meet up with Barbara, and we never expected we would again cross paths with old friends. One morning, while looking for a café in the busy city square, my boyfriend Dani unexpectedly ran into his close childhood friend from New Jersey, who now lives in Israel, and was visiting Prague with his girlfriend. The two still speak very often, but had not communicated their plans to be in Europe to each other. I got goosebumps as the two of them embraced each other in disbelief of the chance encounter. It was by absolute luck that we happened to see them in that moment, and we spent much of the following days in Prague together, drinking along the river, discovering local eateries, and sharing stories as the boys caught up on years of lost time. Sometimes, life likes to give you a reminder of just how small and intimate the world is, and this was one of those times. We ended our last night all in the same city drinking with our legs dangled over the ledge of the river, gazing upon the illuminated castle and waterfall beneath and relishing in the pleasures of new friends (and reunions of old friends alike.)

The company in Prague could not be topped, although the food was a top contender for my new favorite culinary scene. The bohemians delicacies were all excellent – from the food vendors to the chic cafes, to the fine dining, and everything in between. Again, it was bliss to be in a place where potatoes (my favorite food) are a main course. While I occasionally ate sausage or gouache, my meals mostly consisted of potatoes – with cheese, with vegetables, stewed, fried, or rolled into delicate gnocchi. I wish we could adopt the European tradition at home – where each meal was savored as a celebration.

On one of out last nights in Prague, we walked through the square to find much of it had been roped off and filled with dirt and horses. Curious to see what was going on, we realized that it was some sort of historical medieval demonstration, and the square had been transformed for a jousting competition. Throughout our time in Prague, the overarching ambiance I felt was medieval, so it seemed like a fitting happening for us to stumble upon. We enjoyed street food and watched the performers, while across the square Irish soccer hooligans erupted into the streets chanting in celebration of the game (Ireland played Czech that evening.) We joined the rowdy soccer fans for a while. Between the jousters, the hooligans and the street fair all in one square, the city was literally busting at the seams with excitement and activity, and I felt that we had really captured Prague in her glory.

On our final full day in Prague, we decided to patronize the famous (or perhaps I should say infamous) absinthe bar. I had tried absinthe before, but never in a bar dedicated to the craft. We sat in front of a large glass apparatus as the bartender explained the hundreds of variations. Our time was a blur of sugar cubes, impressive flames and pungent green liquids. While I did not see “the green fairy,” I certainly felt my spirits elevated and a warmth that crawled from my belly up into my chest.

Although we were spent from the busy trip, we gave ourselves a pep talk (likely induced by the absinthe) and decided we simply had to make our last night in Prague wild and memorable. And with that, we joined one of the famed Prague bar crawls. We hopped from bar to bar, joined with some of the soccer hooligans from earlier, study abroad students, and transient backpackers. We were among the oldest in the group, but we ensured that we were accepted to the group by quickly beating them all in beer pong in a pub (I can thank my University of Florida education for that skill set.) The night was lively and exhausting all at the same time, but allowed us to see several different offerings of Prague nightlife in one stretch.

The next morning, I was groggy as we packed up to leave Prague. I was almost thankful for the persistent hangover, because it gave me something to divert my attention to (namely, not getting sick on the train ride) and a distraction from the fact that I was so sad this adventure was coming to an end.

As our train crawled through the countryside of Czech Republic, Slovenia and Hungary, I had time to reflect on the incredible experience we had. Although I could have happily stayed for much longer, I felt satisfied with the depths that we had explored each city. I was so thankful for Dani, who proved to be an amazing European travel companion and a superb human pillow on all train and plane rides. We headed back for our flight in Budapest exhausted and sad to be leaving, but I took solace in the fact that I knew I would be back soon. Eastern Europe was a delightful surprise, from start to finish, and I cannot wait to see her again soon.

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