Praha ( Prague), June 2017
I recently published a book recalling the stories of my Great Great Grandparents’ emigration from Bohemia in the late 19th century. While researching and writing their tales, I felt I was being directed by my Kubiček family spirits; I knew I had to complete the circle and make the return visit they were never able to.
My son, who has for years listened to my tales was graduating from college in Rotterdam and we decided to take the opportunity to make the trip. In order to get the full Czech experience we booked a flight on Czech Airlines.
We landed at Vaclav Havel Airport just after dark, and after a rapid descent through immigration boarded a bus for the city. The bus deposited us at the entrance to the subway just to the northwest of Prague. The subway is impressive. Though constructed in the 1970’s, it hasn’t lost its polish and has none of the human scents found in other subterranean systems, We feel very secure. We had a rocky recollection of the stop we were looking for; there were three in a row that began with ‘M’, we chose the middle one, Mustek.
We emerged from the underground into a spectacular view of a zillion colored lights and statues. It was surreal, not the first time this word would come to mind. With no idea of where we were, we wandered briefly savoring the ambiance, before soliciting a cab for a ride to our hotel. We had been wandering about the infamous Wenceslas Square.
Not even attempting to use my primitive Czech, we booked into the Hotel Julian, a stunning, classic hotel. It was formerly the residence of a musician and his family until falling in the hands of the soviets. Several families occupied the building until the Velvet Revolution of 1989, after which, it was returned to the musician’s family. The tall screenless windows in the room opened to the street so we could hear late night voices and footsteps clicking on the cobblestones.
By the time we oriented ourselves, restaurants were closed as was the hotel food service. Up for a walk we passed an incredible lighted fountain; I was already so impressed with the city. We stumbled upon a corner store that sold pints of Czech beer and snacks. Loading up we sipped our pilsners and toasted our Bohemian ancestors for the opportunity.
After mammoth breakfast at the hotel, we followed directions given by the front desk to the Karlův Most, the Charles Bridge. Prague was one of the few cities not bombed in WW II, so the Gothic architecture dating back to the 12th Century remains intact. Although flooding of the Vltava River has eroded and destroyed parts of the bridge it has always been repaired back to its original appearance.It’s a massive structure, 33 feet wide, with arches and statues throughout; an entire book could be dedicated just to the history this bridge.
Passing the licensed street musicians and artists we entered the Old City, a maze of narrow streets, with frequent plazas and fountains and sculptures. Through this ancient architecture, the metro tram system weaves its way as if the city had been designed around it. It is by far the best transportation system I have encountered. The subways and trams put the entire city at the tips of your toes and run so frequently you need not consult schedules.
Exiting through the Jewish Quarter we discovered the Čechův bridge that crosses the Vltava as it courses eastward. Now the word surreal takes on new energy. The pillars on the downstream side between the arches are adorned with six headed hydras. Words alone cannot describe this Kafkaesque scene. Franz actually lived just down the road.
Across the bridge we encounter a switchback of stone stairs leading up a steep hill. If we had a better understanding of the language, we’d have know that this was the entrance to Letenské sady ( Letna Park ) As we finish the climb we discover a massive outdoor beer garden and park on the peak. We quench our thirst with a couple pilsners and savor the surprisingly big crowd. A short walk reveals a monument that had once been a huge statue of Stalin. When the cult of personality feel out of party favor, it was dynamited in 1962 before it was completed. It does provide, however, one of the finest vistas of the bridges of Praha. Jutting above the central skyline we spot an odd structure that looks like a building from Cloud City in Star Wars. Numerous antennas pop out from the top and sides. I make a mental note to Google this when I get back to the hotel.
Emerging from the trail, we encounter a tram that glides us down the hill to the Malostranská metro station. From there it’s about a 8 block walk to our hotel. As we hike we notice a funicular train that carries park visitors to the top of Petřín, the great hill that extends itself along Vltava River with a 130 meter high view. It’s hot, so we note the location for a evening visit.
Cooling our heels back at the hotel, we survey the maps and Google to determine if a trip to the ancestral village if viable. The village,named Knížecí Pláně ( princely plain) is located in the foothills of the Bohemian forest mountains about 80 miles southwest of Praha. There is nothing left of the village but a few tourist hotels and mountain bike trails. There are no trains that travel that direction and we would have to change several buses just to get within 10 miles. We decide that a trip to Plzeň, the home of pilsner beer, would give us a view of countryside our ancestors lived in. Touring the breweries that Czecha is famous for would give us a taste of modern culture.
Our male ancestors were either builders or brewery workers ( Schmidt Brewery, St. Paul) and in either case had a strong thirst for the barley brew. A trip to the most famous Czech brewery seemed like an appropriate tribute to their memories instead of staring at a nearly empty field that once was their village.
But first we had to take care of our hunger. So many street-side cafes to choose from we go for one that is funky but not overly and decide on the authentic meal. Roast pork, sweet and sour braised red cabbage and knedliky, traditionally prepared dumpling, a meal I was suckled on. The pork was succulent as was the red cabbage. The dumpling was not what I expected as it was a bread dumpling, I relished the potato knedlicky. Oh well, delicious nonetheless and perfectly paired with a pilsner.
We passed near the funicular and decided to give it a try. We rose to the top 130 meters high and exited into the amazing park planted with roses and other colorful plants. There is an observation tower built from cast steel that replicates the Eiffel Tower. Rather than climb the 800 stairs we opt for the elevator ride which is really a claustrophobic capsule made from cast iron, supporting up to three people. It reeked a peculiar smell and was very hot and humid; if we’d gotten hung up in there I would have died of suffocation for sure. The view however is astounding; 360 degree views of the entire area warranted a good 30 minute viewing. We took the stairway down. As the sun settled we sat next to the lighted fountain meditating on the day’s adventures.
Up by 10 we grabbed the No. 9 tram that carried us all the way to the Central Station. Trains to Plzen run hourly so no need to rush and check schedules. The smooth electric ride pulled out of the station, circumventing the Vltava before heading up a steep grade into the valley bounded by the Brdy mountains. A small river full of yellow kayaks follows the train into the pointed spruce forest. The scenery is stunning and ancient castles occasionally pop into view. It took us approx. 90 min to make the trip.
We arrived in Plzeň, and counter to tourist horror stories, we were almost the only ones there. The Pilsner-Urquell brewery is just across from the train station via a pedestrian bridge. We enter the majestic gates and follow arrows to the tour building, signing up for the English tour which leaves in 20 minutes following the French and Spanish.
The first part of the tour is standard brewery, showing off how many bottles can be fillled in a day, etc. The pots where the brew is cooked is amazing; thousand gallon copper kettles boil the barley malt, hops and water before the yeast is added to the tanks. The yeast used today is grown from the original batch created in 1838. After viewing all the technological wonders, we descend down a set of slopes into a maze of sandstone caves built below the brewery a couple hundred years ago. It is very cool and we’re glad we wore hoodies. After a tour of the caves we arrive in a room full of larger wooden barrels where the brew served to tourists is resting. We are each given a pint of beer drawn individually from the casks. It is the most amazing tasting beer I’ve ever had. Creamy, unfiltered pilsner with a foamy head, each sip delivering a tasty mouthful. This part of the tour is alone worth the trip. We eat lunch in the brew house, dining on another traditional Czech meal and a Pilsner-Urquell of course. Once again we raise our glasses to the Kubiček ancestors.
We catch the 5 o’clock train back to Praha, a man enters our compartment covered from bald head to toe in bizarre tattoos; I’d never seen that before. Exhausted we watch tv, all that’s available is Russian language detective shows and reruns of Czech dubbed Rockford Files. Sorry no English, but there is library full of books in the hotel lobby; how civilized I remark to Dylan. I’ve never seen an American hotel with a library ! We read while a thunderstorm spanks the cobblestones below our window.
The morning breaks to cool blue skies and the feeling that we have a grip on the mental map of the city and decide to stretch out across the city. It seems everyone working at the hotel speaks English quite well. The Czech language is so foreign to my eyes and ears that struggle to grasp it; I applaud hotel people’s English skills.
After another full day of hikes; I read on the local events page about a latin music festival taking place across town featuring food, drink and song. Curious I am ! We exited the metro and rose into a park where a latin music festival was indeed in progress. A full mariachi band held court from the stage and the scent of burning animal flesh filled the air. Brazilian churrasco, tacos, all that one desired could be had.
More interesting was that strange antenna structure we spied from Letna Park is just a block away. It is identified as Žižkov Television Tower built during the Russian years. It is reviled by many for its symbolic value but admired for the enhancements performed by the artist David Černý He created several crawling babies that are attached to the walls that make one do a double-take. Mark that word surreal again. The tower is illuminated at night by a cycling series of color schemes making an attractive artifice. We didn’t go to the bar at the top or check out the hotel, but the park was pleasant and the beer tasty.
Dylan is craving pizza. We stumble upon a greek restaurant with the best goat cheese flat crust pizza I’ve had so far in my life. Perhaps the ambiance affected my taste.
9 days was just too short a time to absorb the city, but friends in Amsterdam are expecting me. I think I will need to spend at least a month there to leisurely explore to really capture a the sense of place. I hope this keeps my ancestor’s spirits engaged until I return.