WorldTeach Poland Summer alum Kate recounts a trip to a city she'd been longing to visit for years.
The longing began years ago in a now-ex-then-current-boyfriend’s living room. We sat cross-legged on the carpet, pouring over old photo albums and exclaiming over toddler smiles. Suddenly, the pages of one volume turned lush, ornate, mysteriously decked with stone and rich paints next to twilight water.
“Where were these taken?” I asked my beau.
“Prague. My parents took a vacation there about ten years ago.”
Entranced by those glossy, candied prints, a capricious decision was made: I would make it to the The City of a Hundred Spires.
Six years later, curled in a sticky overnight train compartment, I did.
Last Wednesday, Annie and I arrived back in Krakow with the other volunteers, watched them clamber onto various trains and buses, then set about busying ourselves until our night ride to Prague. Both of us were mixed ratios of emotion, three parts excited to one part nervous. Two young women with spaghetti-strength arms, we couldn’t help but feel a tinge of fear at the tales of ruthless pickpockets, handsy muggers, confusing streets, and tricksy taxi drivers that abounded in the unknown city that awaited us. Still, cliche as it sounds, adventure was calling (plus the tickets were purchased and the hostel booked, so no take backs.)
We spent the day in Krakow eating sandwiches and frozen yogurt and salads, lingering in a French shop filled with cases of cheese and botles of wine, reading books, strolling the market square spattered with pigeons and coated in humid heat. We decided to see a movie, and located a small, artsy theater on the second floor of a balconied stone building. To our good fortune, “Blue Jasmine,” the only English film the theater was currently showing, was to start in five minutes. There were five seats left. And because of some sort of trendy independent festival the film was a part of, tickets cost seven zloty (that’s less than three dollars, friends.) We left the theater humming “Blue Moon” and twirling our little suitcases through the tree-framed streets of Krakow, wallets and hearts content.
The overnight train to Prague arrived at Krakow Glowny at 10:00 pm on the nose. Our compartment held two French boys (when they first began to speak, Annie and I exchanged blissful glances), a pair of backpacking students from Portugal, and two Brits. Hogwarts Express style, we watched the Central European countryside race by, curled on the dusty seats with jackets for pillows, my “acoustic indie mush” playlist plugged in my ears to induce sleepiness. It worked. Dawn made me blink, and we had arrived at Praha Central.
Prague is like something from a fairy tale. There is no better description I can come up with. Its currency, the crown, comes in octagonal gold coins and bills of 2,000. Its architecture is over-lavish, assaulting the eye with statues and colors and engravings. Its river, the Vltava, is spanned by bridges that offer magnificent views of the world’s largest castle complex. Tucked in the hills stands a miniature Eiffel Tour.
Annie and I spent two nights at the Czech Inn, a hostel we chose partly for its competitive prices and great location but mostly for its campy name. I am now a proud owner of a Czech Inn T-shirt. We slept in a giant bunk room filled with what we decided was a traveling gang of 20 Portuguese male models. Because their faces were so beautiful, we forgave them for leaving their clothing all over the floor and talking in normal voices at 4 am. In the mornings, we breakfasted in the hostel’s bar, mixing yogurt with dried apricots, gulping coffee, and tracing out plans for the day.
We navigated Praha by foot, by tram, by subway, by bus. Armed with directions from the hostel and a map, I managed to harness the city’s transportive energy to get us from landmark to landmark. If you know me, you know that I get lost getting from the local Costco back to my house, so figuring out this tangle of colored and numbered liens was a rather large achievement.
We saw all of the things we were supposed to see. I can envision us now, prototypical tourists clad in sundresses and sunscreen, adorned with iPhone cameras, not enough change, and slightly open mouths. We strolled over the Charles Bridge, necks turned up at the iconic statues lining its sides, enchanted by stands of paintings, racks of jewelry, and trumpet blares. We visited the old Jewish Quarter (Josefov) the synagogues and graveyards now surrounded by one of the city’s most glamorous shopping and dining districts. We stood in Old Town (Stare Mesto) to watch the wooden figurines of the large clock dance in their hourly show. We listened to a guide talk history and legends, eyes drawn ever upward to the spires in the sun. We drank Czech beer and ate gingerbread from paper bags. We “awe-ed” over the otters and tigers at the Prague Zoo. We took a boat cruise over the Vltava, watching the waves lap the bridges, cruising through side canals and watching the dank clouds burn off in the light.
Of all of the things we were supposed to see that we subsequently saw (say that ten times fast) I fell in love most firmly with the Prague Castle. Spread over a hilltop like a picnic blanket, it is a maze of history too long for my mind to grasp. We wandered through Golden Lane, a row of peaked and pasteled cottages inhabited by blacksmiths, craftsmen, a famous fortune teller, and even Franz Kafka. We saw yellowed books and shiny suits of armor, old torture weapons and bones, brocaded crowns and lovely jewels. We climbed to the tops of towers; we peered from the window where the Second Defenestration of Prague kicked off the Thirty Years’ War. I spent thirty minutes awestruck by the St. Vitus Cathedral, praying in the side chapel, exclaiming softly over stained glass and fresco and wood. Poor Annie was subjected to my adoration of old churches several times during our trip. I couldn’t get enough of St. Nicholas’ Cathedral. I even pulled her into several other lesser known houses of worship throughout our weekend: cold, dusty, musty, stunningly beautiful monuments of faith.
The few times Annie and I wandered from the well-trod tourist path, we were richly rewarded. Prague is alive with music, so we knew that some sort of concert was in order during our stay. Our choice? A chamber orchestra’s rendering of Gershwin and Bernstein, performed in a beautifully converted synagogue coated in gold. We watched members of the audience smile just as broadly as we did over West Side Story’s “Tonight,” and I felt the stirrings of pride for my country. We ate vegan quesadillas and Italian pasta (but no vegan Italian food…that seems somewhat impossible to pull off.) We saw another movie, “Begin Again,” full of love plots and guitar riffs and exactly what we needed before dinner in a local bar. We even managed to track down Cafe Louvre, formerly frequented by Kafka and Einstein, where we took tea and cakes and read the complimentary newspapers laid over the tables.
A whirlwind trip, a mixture of vendors calling in the streets, bright lights and shadowed corners, swans on the water and stars in the sky, laughter at being lost (it happened sometimes) and broad smiles over beauty. It ended with an overnight bus ride to Warsaw. The air conditioning whirred on high, so I slept with my arms in my shirt, stomach full of museli cakes and tapioca that I thought was Greek yogurt when I bought it (classic mistake) and Polish chocolate.
The sleepy music played, accompanied by new dreams this time…for Prague, Prague had come true.
-Kate, WorldTeach Poland Summer 2014
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