There are multiple walking tour companies in Prague; the Old Town area is fairly compact and so most prefer to explore it on foot. There are Hop-On Hop-Off buses that run here but they did not seem to be very popular. The buses are not the typical full-sized double-decker buses; they are compact and single level. I had also read that many tourists will use tram #22 as a HOHO bus since it supposedly takes you around to the major tourist destinations here. We rode on tram 22 to get to Prague castle. Don’t waste your money thinking that you will see the important sites here on the tram. It is useful for getting to tourist destinations if you have already pre-planned which ones you want to see.
I chose to book with White Umbrella Tours. I was sent an email confirmation with directions to meet in front of the Cartier store in Old Town Square at 10 am. We went out at 7 am to look for a place to eat breakfast. Apparently, not many people here eat early because we had a hard time finding restaurants open near us. Many opened between 8 and 9 am; we didn’t want to wait. So, we headed to good old Mickie D’s which was about 0.3 miles away. So glad we had Google maps to guide us or we never would’ve found it! McDonalds actually had a decent breakfast selection. We both had scrambled eggs with ham and cheese, an English muffin, and a coffee. Not too bad!
We found our way from McDonalds to the Old Town Square and found a bench to hang out on until the tour started. It was already pretty hot and the square was getting filled with people. One of the things about Prague that amazed me was how packed it was, day and night. Everywhere was packed with people walking around. The only time you don’t see many people is before 8 am. Anyhow, I took a few pictures, and after the tour started, learned what I had taken pictures of.
Several tour companies meet in the same location and the tour groups for the other companies were quite large. For some reason, there were only two couples on ours – a couple from Colombia and us. The guide was from Honduras which made for an interesting tour. It was hard to understand the Czech words from a guy with a Spanish accent! He offered to move the couple from Colombia to a Spanish-speaking tour, but they wanted to stay in the English tour. Maybe because the other group had about 40 people? Who knows!
Prague is the capital of the Czech Republic. The Czech Republic has three parts – Bohemia to the west, and Moravia and Silesia to the east. Charles IV was a big, dog deal here. He wanted to be Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire during the 14th century and was successful, due to buying votes with his dad’s stash of silver. Some things never change! Anyhow, Prague became the imperial city in 1355 and Charles set about building lots of beautiful buildings.
We examined the Church of Our Lady Before Tyn. I hadn’t noticed, but the two towers are different in size. This is due to them being built at different times by different people; it took from 1355 to 1511 to build the church. The towers are nicknamed Adam and Eve. Next to the church is the Gothic House at the Stone Bell.
The first thing I noticed when we first entered the square was an enormous statue. It turns out that this statue is a tribute to Jan Hus, a Catholic reformer who was declared a heretic and burned at the stake in 1415. Ten percent of the population here are Hussites (followers of Hus) so he obviously had a lasting impact. I was surprised to learn that 60% of Czechs are atheist. Only 20% are Catholic and the remaining 10% are comprised of mixed religions. St Nicholas Church, part of the town square, is a Hussite Church (there are 4 in Prague).
One of the interesting things about Prague is the diversity of architectural styles. Kinsky Palace is a rococo building that now houses the National Gallery of Art. Franz Kafka studied there. There is a large library on the ground floor.
Normally, one of the most interesting places in the town square is the Astronomical Clock, which is embedded in the Old Town Hall tower. Sad to say (at least for us), the Czech Republic is celebrating its centennial in November and the clock is being renovated. There is all types of construction and general spiffing up going on around town in preparation. There was a poster showing what the clock will look like when it is completed. Our guide explained the parts of the clock; it was fascinating. At the very top is a rooster that (I believe) flaps its wings. Below that the twelve apostles rotate. The main clock is surrounded by 4 figures; two on each side. Three of them shake their heads no – they do not want to “go”. The skeleton, however, shakes his head yes! The central clock has several rings. The outer ring has medieval numbers; the next ring roman numerals from 1 to 24 (with its corresponding arabic numeral below it); and in the center, ancient Babylonian numerals that give the position of the clock in the astronomical universe. There is another clock below that is an agricultural calendar and also contains the signs of the zodiac. My explanation is an over-simplification; there is much, much more detail on the clock than what I have tried to share.
We walked away from the town square and stopped at a shop that used to be known as the Chequepoint. This was a money-changing business that used to rip off tourists. The going rate for local currency is 25 Euros = 1 Koruna (pronounced “crown”); this place would only give 1 Koruna for 15 Euros. Our guide warned us against using the ATMs around town labeled Euronet; he claimed that they give a terrible exchange rate. He, however, knew a place that would give us a great exchange rate. Sure. He also warned us against ever exchanging currency with someone on the street. He said they liked to give tourists rubles, which are worthless, rather than the local currency. I’d like to think that I know enough to never exchange money with a stranger on the street without someone warning me against it. Prague is known as a place where lots of scams take place, so beware. Taxis are prone to overcharge; always agree on a price before getting in the cab. Or, do like us and use an app. We used Taxify, which is much like Uber.
We stopped in front of the Carolinum, a university built by Charles IV in 1348. It was bombed and rebuilt and currently has 52,000 students attending. On the other side of the street is the State Theater (it used to be the National Theater). Mozart was here in the 18th century; he lived a couple of blocks away. He was hired to write an opera but instead, spent his time enjoying the local women and made no progress. His sponsors got a bit peeved and moved him to a remote location across the river. Two days later, he had composed the opera “Don Giovanni” which was being performed currently. This particular opera is 3 1/2 to 4 hours long and is one of Mozart’s masterpieces. Outside the theater is a statue of one of the main characters in the opera. It is a creepy looking thing.
The largest “square” in town is Wenceslas Square which is 880 meters long; at the end of it is the National Museum, which is currently being renovated. There is a statue of King Wenceslas on a horse in front of the museum.
All around town you can see stands and shops selling Trdelnik, which most don’t realize is not a Czech treat at all; it is Hungarian. All I can say is that whoever came up with the idea, it is delicious! Essentially, it is a chimney shaped piece of dough, sprinkled with cinnamon sugar and baked over an open flame. We tried one filled with gelato but you can also buy them dipped in chocolate as well as other delicious variations.
To get out of the heat for a bit, we sat on the steps leading up to a casino while Jose told us about the communist era here. The communist era began in 1946 when the communists won the election, putting Gottwald in as Prime Minister. In 1947 the communists pressured him to leave. In 1948, the communists completely took over and the people of Czechoslovakia lost three primary liberties:
- Communication – from 98 freely operating newspapers to 2 state controlled ones
- Reunion – it was illegal to meet with 6 or more people. No walking down the street together, meeting in a bar, family get-togethers, etc.
- Unable to leave country – no visas
This is how things were for the next 20 years. In 1968, the PM started returning liberties to the people, allowing visas among other things. This did not go over well with the Russians. The Warsaw Pact armies invaded in 1968 to bring things back to the status quo.
On January 16, 1969, a 20-year old student named Jan Palach lit himself on fire in front of the National Gallery to encourage others to fight against Communism. Eventually, 25 more did the same before the Communists put a stop to the protest. They instituted a policy where 1 out of 50 people were selected to be spies against their friends and family (they had no choice). This created an atmosphere of mistrust.
In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. Seven days later was the Velvet Revolution; the Communists quietly packed up and left. Three hundred thousand people gathered in Wenceslas Square. Their leader and all of the people shook keys to represent having the keys to their own house again.
In 1993, Czechoslovakia split into two parts: the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Both joined the EU in 2004 but retained their own currency. Within 5 years, the Czech Republic will be switching to the Euro which will most likely make things more expensive here, so this is a great time to visit.
We had reached the Powder Tower which is one of two city gates. The other is at Prague Castle. The silver that purchased Charles IV’s position was brought through this gate. His coronation started here, continued across the Charles Bridge and ended at the castle.
We walked past the Barcelo Hotel which is where Mozart stayed. Given its history, it is a very expensive and popular place to stay.
As we walked towards Josefov, the Jewish Quarter of Prague, Jose explained why beer is the reason the Czechs became known for their beautiful glass. In Plzen (Pilsen), a clear, lovely beer was created. Prior to this, beer was drunk from thick steins (pewter or ceramic). In order to show off their beer, they started creating mugs made of glass.
At the entry of the Josefov, there is a statue of Kafka, who was Jewish. He had some serious Daddy issues and this particular statue is representative of those issues. It’s hard to see from the picture of the statue, but there is a bug being squashed underneath it. Kafka’s book, The Metamorphosis deals with this subject.
The Josefov area was built in the 9th and 10th centuries. In the 13th century, walls were built around it to enclose the Jews, creating a ghetto. In the 18th century, the emperor demolished the walls and gave the Jews citizenship. The name Josefov is in honor of Joseph II, the Emperor that demolished the ghetto.
The Jews fled the area and it fell into disrepair. Hookers and drug addicts took up residence there. City Hall decided to demolish the entire area with the exception of the synagogue and cemetery. It is now the most expensive place to live in Prague. One square meter in an apartment runs from 6 to 10,000 Euros.
In the distance, a giant metronome statue is visible. There used to be an enormous statue of Stalin located there. It was taken down in 1992. The metronome represents the fact that Czechs can now move to a tempo or pace of their own.
The Intercontinental is a very ugly structure that cannot be updated because of the area’s UNESCO designation.
The Staronova Synagogue’s tower supposedly houses the Golem of Prague. You can climb into the tower where the golem supposedly exists (or at least the pieces of it) if you dare.
A Hebrew clock can be seen on the tower of the old City Hall. You need a mirror to use it to tell time; Hebrew clocks run counterclockwise!
We did not enter (it costs 20 Euros/person admission) but there is a unique cemetery in Josefov. Historically, as the cemetery filled up, Jews were denied the right to expand the cemetery. So instead, they added more layers until now, there are twelve layers of people under each headstone. Since Jewish people are buried directly in the earth (no coffin), the headstones and ground are very uneven. Each headstone contains the names of all of the people buried underneath. These uneven headstones inspired the artist that created the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin.
Jose briefly talked about Terezin, a concentration camp located about an hour from Prague. This camp was a propaganda camp. Unlike other camps, it housed elders and children, as well as many professionals. Elite Jews were sent there. Terezin had hospitals, schools, and theaters. It was used to supposedly show the world how well the Jews were being treated by the Germans. All lies. The children were being experimented on. There were 4500 drawings found that had been done by the children that documented this.
Our tour ended at Jan Palach Square. From here we could see Prague Castle and the Eiffel Tower of Prague. This was where WWII ended. On 4/30/45, Hitler killed himself. The Nazis went on a rampage over the next few days; any uprising was punished in a sea of blood. Soon, the Resistance knew that the Nazis no longer had a leader. Every morning started with a radio broadcast of German music, but on the 5th of May, Czech music was played instead. On the 6th, 40 thousand Nazis were captured. The next day, a thousand Nazis arrived to help (they were fleeing the Red army) and bombing began. On the 8th, negotiations took place that allowed the Nazis to surrender to General Patton. On the 9th, the Russians arrived and killed any remaining Nazis.
The Yalta Conference turned Czechoslovakia over to the Communists; the Czechs were betrayed by their own allies.
This was a very informative tour and well worth the time. Tomorrow, we head to Prague Castle.