Once Christmas was over we headed over to the Czech Republic to the only city it has: Prague. I’m joking, Czechia, it’s short-form name for English speakers, has more than just Prague, but most of the tourists only go to Prague and we were no exception this time. Prague is a gorgeous city, even in the winter. While it was very cold and completely packed with other tourists, it was a very interesting place to see. We did an informative walking tour our first full day in the city and learned where all of the important buildings are located. Author Franz Kafka is from Prague and the building he was born in is in the city still to this day.
Our second day it rained non-stop but we did get out for some air and to see a museum each. Callum went to see the Communism Museum and I went to see, what else? Another art gallery. This time the small but worth it “Mucha Museum.” Alphonse Mucha is in my opinion the best Art Nouveau artist of all time. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that he was Czech and celebrated in Prague. I saw some of his prints in a tourist shop our first night and asked aloud to no one in particular “Wait—is Mucha from here?! I love him!” So I googled it that night and learned that he was indeed Czech . I found that the museum was very close to our hostel and enjoyed my visit very much. It was neat to see his prints in real life and to discover he was also a talented painter.
We also viewed the Charles Bridge and Prague Castle, which is a huge complex of buildings which is located across the Vltava river. The Charles Bridge in its first years was the only bridge connecting the castle to the old town until 1841. We walked all the way there from our hostel to experience the bridge and it wasn’t that far. It was up up up the whole way with 100s of other people, but quite doable. At the top of the castle, we began queuing for entry into the complex. It was a very long line that snaked around the courtyard with people as adamant as we were that we were going to get in. We heard a lot of Aussie accents that day, and listened to the family behind us wonder what percentage of people in the line were Australian. Callum in an unprecedented spirit of joining-in, turned around and joked “90%” much to everyone’s amusement. It is his pet peeve to hear other Aussies while travelling. Apparently, our new friends hate it too. They all want to be unique.
The castle’s complex has many options for what you want to see. You can buy different tickets based on how many sites you want to enter. We bought circuit B so we could see the St. Vitus Cathedral, the Old Royal Palace, St. George’s Basilica, and the Golden Lane. This ticket set us back 250 Czech crowns each. The Cathedral was lovely and we spent a long time inside admiring the stained glass windows and artistry found there. The Royal Palace had a nice main hall that looked impressive, though we weren’t allowed to take photos. I snuck a few anyway which was easy to do because of the amount of other tourists around. We skipped the Basilica because we were getting tired but we did nip into the Golden Lane for a bit which I thought was extremely interesting. The lane comprises of several small abode—and I do mean small—where different employees of the castle once lived. It was built at the end of the 15th century and was originally intended for the marksmen of the castle to live. There were 24 of them and limited space, so their houses had to be small. They are so small, it is unbelievable that people actually lived in these spaces. They are roughly the size of a walk in closet or garden shed, though with a low roof and only room enough for a tiny dwarf sized bed and accompanying tiny furniture as befitted whomever lived there. For example, the dressmaker, the goldsmith, the herbalist, and a miniature pub. It was fascinating. Most of the houses that aren’t arranged on display for you to poke your head into have been turned into souvenir shops for tourists. One of them sold ceramics which I was tempted to buy. That’s the beauty of back-packing—you can’t give in to temptation because you simply have no room. Interestingly, Franz Kafka lived for a time in House 22 where he wrote one of his books.
Once we had seen our fill of the complex we decided to head home for a rest. We made a little detour to see the John Lennon wall of graffiti which was insane with tourists—who knew a simple graffiti covered wall would gain so much attention? I guess we were there, too. The wall is just a simple wall that has been covered with Lennon imagery, quotes and Beatles lyrics since the 1980’s. It has gone through many changes as is true of most graffiti areas. It actually has kind of an interesting history. In the past, the government has tried to clean it up many times but people kept painting it over again. Now, it’s a tourist attraction and everyone wants their picture in front of it. I tried to wait patiently for my turn but others kept budging in front, taking their selfies and obnoxiously checking their phones and cameras while still standing in the way of the rest of us waiting to use the same space. Am I starting to sound like I hate other tourists yet?
After I grabbed a shot of Cal in front of the Lennon wall we made our way back to our hostel via the way we came. In the morning the Charles bridge was busy enough but it was on the way back later in the late afternoon that we could barely walk for people. I highly recommend seeing the sites of Prague in the early morning, finishing your tour as soon as possible if you want to avoid all the “cockroaches” (my term for billions of tourists). The number of people in Prague surprised us as it is the dead of winter. We learned that the Christmas season is a busy time everywhere in Europe. In Prague it’s busy all the time, but at Christmas even locals walk around, fighting through the tourists. Because of all the people I think I’d prefer to come back in the summer months for a single day and then get the heck out of there to see more of the country.
Later that same night, we had another cultural experience that we’ll not soon forget. We went to an opera. Like a real live opera. This was no cute “Phantom of the Opera” with actual acting and a storyline that makes some sort of sense, with costume changes and interesting and evolving sets. No, this was a real opera with real opera singers with real surtitles above the stage, translating the Czech into ridiculously hilarious English text. The opera we saw was called “Jenůfa”. It is the grim tale of infanticide and redemption and to be honest, I was really confused the whole entire time. I think things got super lost in translation because it all seemed to escalate quickly. One moment Jenufa is in love with a drunk good-for nothing guy while the other guy she despises crushes on her. And he accidentally disfigures her with his blunt knife. Like, that really shows you’re into her, apparently. Next minute, she’s knocked up and hiding in her stepmothers’ house. The baby is born and then her stepmother kills her baby while Jenufa’s asleep with fever and lies about it. She drowns it in the river and hopes no one will find it. Then she convinces Jenufa to marry the guy her disfigured her, because he’s good and he loves her. Okaaaayyy.
The play was divided into three acts which were followed by an intermission. This was a relief because the seats we were sitting in (the nosebleed section) were so small my knees touched the seat in front me and my back killed the entire time. After the second act Cal asked me if I wanted to leave. I did, but by then it was a test of endurance. And I really needed to know what happened in the third act. I wanted to know if it would all make sense in the end like a Woody Allen film. The answer: nope. So in the third act, Jenufa’s about to marry the guy that loves her. She’s doing it because she guesses it’s her only option. But then! The town finds her dead baby and soon after the stepmother admits to her crime so that the town doesn’t stone her daughter. And then Jenufa forgives her. And then Jenufa tells the guy to go away because she’s damaged goods, but he refuses. It was very weird. There, I told you about it and now you don’t have to go see it. We left while the audience was enthusiastically applauding and bravo-ing the performers. We were like “Okay, so people are into this sort of thing.”
I am so glad we went because I’ve been curious about real opera for a long time. I have now satisfied that curiosity and no longer feel the need to see another. Unless a good friend that I very much admire and respect tells me I must see a particular opera, I will avoid it. And I certainly won’t make poor Callum go ever again.
After the busy but beautiful city of Prague we returned once more to Germany and visited Berlin. Berlin was a bit dingy and drizzly. It reminded me a bit of Naples which is my go-to example of an important but grimy looking sort of city that everyone goes to for the history but not so much for the looks. We found it difficult to site-see in Berlin because we were there during New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. Again, like Nuremberg, it was very busy with people but everything was shut. Even open-air museums were shut. I suppose we should have done a bit more research before going there.
Nevertheless, we saw a couple of things. The Berlin Wall at the Eastside Gallery was good to see and something you shouldn’t miss. I was surprised at how thin the wall is/was. It is only about as thick as the length of my hand. I was also a wee bit disappointed with the murals. Callum’s pictures from his visit in 2011 reveal much better-looking imagery than what we saw on this trip. I guess a lot of people graffiti over the original murals and several artists have re-done their own pictures on top since 2009. I wanted to see original murals from the 80’s and 90’s and only noticed a few. The famous one of the socialist fraternal kissers Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker has been restored by the original artist in 2009. I love graffiti but only if it’s not destroying other people’s artwork, especially famous artwork. It’s such a pity that a restoration even had to take place. Evenso, I am glad to have seen this historical mural as well as others along the 1316 meter wall.
We also had a chance to see one more art gallery for this trip. The Gemäldegalerie was very worth the trip and the audio guides were great. Each audio clip was only 2 minutes long and informative enough to be interesting before it got boring. There was a loooot of religious art which we have seen our fair share of, but what was there was really good. The most interesting piece was of course protected against photography (typical) but there was another piece which stood out for both of us, and that’s Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s “Netherlandish Proverbs” painting (1559). It is a fantastic piece illustrating idioms and aphorisms of 16th century Flemish life. These are visual literal interpretations and some of them are still used today! There are over 100 of them pictured. Some examples include: “to bang one’s head against a brick wall”, “the world is turned upside down”, and “the blind leading the blind”. Something neat about this painting is that a detail of it is on the cover of one of my favourite bands, Fleet Foxes. Their debut album which was released in 2008 was considered one of the best albums of its year. You should check them out!
We also checked out the Topography of Terror museum which Callum was impressed with his first time in Berlin. It is on the site of some important buildings of the Nazi regime during WWII. The buildings are now all torn down but there are some remains poking up from the ground and it is here that a memorial museum has been erected, full of information about Nazi propaganda with a focus on the SS and police during the “Third Reich” and the crimes they committed in Europe. It was a very detailed museum to learn more about a side to WWII that I don’t know much about.
Berlin was our second last stop before returning home to Perth. We loved experiencing a few different places but truth be told, we are pretty excited to leave Europe. We both love warm weather and so the winter stint has been challenging. We are looking forward to some vitamin D and some warmth too. Most of where we went in Europe this time will have to be repeats so I can see what it’s like in a completely different season, but for now my appetite for European countries is sated. On to Mauritius!