This year I had the chance to not only visit Prague, but to do so with my Mum. My mother’s family fled Czechoslovakia in 1968, after the Soviets moved in to crush the Prague Spring, and since then she hasn’t been back. It’s been 50 years and this spring she finally made it back home, not only to Prague, but to her home town. I’ve heard stories from my mum, my aunt, and various people I grew up around all my life. I’ve read about Prague and talked with my mum at length about what it was like growing up in what is now the Czech Republic. As a result, I have wanted to visit this city for as long as I can remember.
My mum said she wasn’t sure what to expect, upon returning to the Czech Republic. Truthfully, a part of me worried before the trip that perhaps it wouldn’t be what she expected, that it wouldn’t live up to memories or expectations. She never lived in Prague as a child, but she did travel into the capital for gymnastics classes several times a week, and probably for special occasions. When we arrived however, she told me she was shocked by how much it had changed. Although she didn’t remember many landmarks, or recognize old buildings, she told me her impressions of the city the last time she had been there, and how different it all seems now. She said when she had last been to Prague in 1968 it had been grey. She said that ‘grey’ was the best word to describe how it looked back then, under the communist regime. She spoke of how the buildings were not painted in pastels as they are today, but were dark and grimy and in disrepair. The churches were all shut, and there were no little markets selling trinkets and beer, like there are today. Back then, Prague was dark and depressing and an entirely different place than it is today.
Despite the family history and the desire to go, I myself had never been to the Czech Republic before. I’ve been living in Europe (or close to it) for years, and despite wanting to go every time I looked at flights or bus tickets before a holiday, I wanted to wait and go with family. This was my first trip to Prague, and I’m sure it won’t be my last. I was certainly not disappointed with my first impression of this magnificent city that I’ve heard to much about. I can’t imagine how it must have looked when my Mum was last there, because to me it was stunning and colorful and vibrant. I have heard people say that Prague, Vienna, and Budapest are similar, so I expected it to look more like it does here in Budapest. I was pleasantly surprised though, by how different it really is. I found that everything was just prettier. The buildings had all been repainted, and renovated, the facades all matched, and the streets were clean. The Easter markets were nicer, there were more street musicians and quaint outside cafes. I think that perhaps Prague has been established as a tourist destination longer than Budapest and maybe because of this interest it has put more money into looking nice. It’s even clear coming from the airport and driving into the city that Prague has put in a great deal more effort into making the city look good than Budapest has. Both cities have big communist block apartment buildings on the outskirts of the city, and yet the ones in Prague have been renovated and painted pretty pinks, yellows, and greens, whereas the ones in Budapest are dark and gray, falling into disrepair in many areas. Whatever the reason for the difference, I was certainly not reminded of Budapest when I arrived in Prague. Budapest is home now, and it is honestly a wonderful city. I couldn’t be happier with my home here; but when we arrived in the Czech Republic, I couldn’t help falling in love with Prague.
We went to Prague right after Easter and the atmosphere in the city was lively, epitomizing spring. It was warm and sunny every day we were there, and there were outdoor cafes full of people enjoying a beer in the sun. The Easter markets were still up, but perhaps they were simply spring markets at that point. There were colorful displays, a multitude of wonderful street foods, and plenty of green beer leftover from the Easter celebrations. We wandered through the cobble stone streets of Staré Město and Malá Strana over and over, getting lost and walking in circles. We were staying in Wenceslas Square, within walking distance to most of the places we were interested in seeing, and I have found that in cities like this, where there are so many unique streets and sites that are easy to overlook in a guide book, walking is always better. While we walked through Staré Město we visited several synagogues, churches, and enjoyed the leftover markets in the old town square. We ventured across Charles bridge (among throngs of tourists), ate lunch by the water, checked out the famous Lennon Wall (which was definitely one of the highlights for me), and had many beers throughout our stay in Prague. On our last day we finally made our way through Hradčany, the Prague castle complex, where I fell in love with the Golden Lane, or Zlatá Ulička, a little street (also packed with tourists), that featured little shops and fairy tale homes set up to represent how the lane would have looked hundreds of years ago. They had an alchemist’s house, a toymaker’s shop, an early filmmaker’s home, and evidently even Franz Kafka lived on the lane for a short time. The lane is built into the castle fortifications, and at the end, you find yourself out front of a tower attached to the fortified walls of the castle complex. Daliborka Tower was an infamous prison and is now open for visiting, complete with cells you can check out, torture devices that look awful and even an iron maiden (which also looks awful). While this was somewhat less cheerful than the brightly colored Golden Lane, it was also a really interesting part of the complex. For me though, easily the best part of Hradčany was St. Vitus Cathedral. I’ve seen many cathedrals, basilicas, churches and mosques around the world, and this was definitely on my list of favorites. The most impressive parts of the cathedral for me were the stained glass windows. There were so many beautiful and intricate stained glass windows lining the already impressive structure, spilling colored light all over, bringing life into the otherwise dark stone of the cathedral. Up against the other stained glass windows I’ve seen around Europe, the ones in St. Vitus can certainly hold their own.
I don’t think I could even pinpoint what my favorite thing in Prague was though honestly. I loved St. Vitus Cathedral, and I thought all of Hradčany was beautiful. I loved the markets and the food; and I had the best svíčková that I think I’ll ever have in my life. The beer was great, and Charles Bridge was as gorgeous as I thought it would be. The colorful buildings, the cobblestone streets, the random art installations and the Swedish street performer we were entertained by all made the trip memorable; but what made it more memorable for me was the fact that I had the chance to experience it the first time with my mother. Not only did I get to experience my family’s home for the first time, but I was experiencing my Mum’s return with her, after so many years. I know I’ll go back to Prague, and I’ll hopefully even live there one day; but I’ll always be glad that I waited to make this trip with my Mum first.