The last leg of our journey through Central Europe would be to the beautiful city of Prague. I took a one-hour flight from Budapest on Czech Air, while my friend Marshall took a seven-hour train ride from Budapest to Prague. It was a bit odd being without my amazing travel buddy for half the day, but it allowed me to get into Prague in the mid-morning. I arrived at our Airbnb right at noon and met the host, Sofiya, who was waiting with the key.
Once again, our apartment rental on Airbnb was a great find. We had a 2-bedroom place, with a full kitchen, bathroom, and even a washer and dryer for clothes. We were also in a great location – about a 15-20 minute walk to all the main destinations. With that said, sometimes when we were going back and forth from where we were, we often used Uber to get around. (Uber also picks up from the airport in Prague!) It was super inexpensive and efficient. We were also just a 3-minute walk to a grocery store and I used the opportunity before Marshall arrived to load up on some essentials like bottled water, sodas, and breakfast items for the next few days. I knew we’d likely get lunch and dinner out in the city, so I didn’t need to get too much.
Marshall’s train arrived a little after 4pm and once he got in, we started to explore. We took an Uber ride out to the Strahov Monastic Brewery, located in a building that was founded by King Vladislav II in 1142. The brewery itself has been around since the 13th century. We ate dinner inside another cave-like structure on the property and had some traditional Czech food. Other than dinner, we didn’t spend a lot more time there because we wanted to get up to the NH Hotel, where my friend Brittany Corfman of Orlando had suggested we get a drink and take in the views from the top – and we wanted to do so at sunset. Once we walked into the hotel, we found the cable car that took us up to the Sky Lounge. From there, we got an incredible view as the sun was setting on our first night in Prague.
We then called another Uber to take us near the Old Town Square in Prague. We soon realized this was a really happening city, especially on a Friday night. However, that Old Town area with all the landmark sites was really overrun with tourists. But, the open plaza near the Astronomical Clock and the beautiful old churches were just simply alive with energy this evening. Since this was our travel day in and we had a lot we wanted to do on Saturday, we didn’t want to stay out too late. We simply took about an hour or so and meandered around the old city streets and got our bearings. We then headed back to our Airbnb apartment and called it a night.
On Saturday morning, we got the day rolling by walking towards the Old Town Square. It was a 20-minute walk but we took our time, stopping to see a few things, such as the Head of Franz Kafka, a rotating 42-layer sculpture of the famous Czech writer (who also happened to be a Jew). You really have to see a video of what this looks like. We took it in for a few minutes and it was quite fascinating. We eventually made our way to the Old Town Square where we were able to get some great photographs of the Astronomical Clock (even though the building around it is currently filled with scaffolding for renovations) and the various churches. The Protestant Reformation officially started with Martin Luther in Germany, but acts of Christian rebellion against the Catholic Church actually began here more than 500 years ago. They had rounded up some of the clergy and threw them out the windows. Yikes.
We then joined a free 3-hour walking tour of Prague that is offered by Sandemans. You can sign up for these advance, or you can just show up. Our guide, Filip, was just great. And at the beginning of the tour, he told us that we may be wondering how they can offer us these tours for free. He said their policy is that you can pay at the end what you feel the tour was worth. I assumed from the start, we’d definitely be giving a big tip to our guide should the tour go well. I also assumed they would use the tour to try to “upsell” us on other tours they offer in the city. This tour is highly recommended. No gimmicks. And they didn’t waste much time.
We lucked out getting Filip. He was about 28 years old and was born and raised in the Czech Republic. As it happens, he was 7 months old when the 1989 Velvet Revolution took place in Prague. This was a movement that stood up against the communist occupation of Prague. It is called the Velvet Revolution because it was so smooth. While there was some violence against the protestors, it was mostly bloodless and so they named it the Velvet Revolution since it was as smooth as the material velvet. According to one observation, the fall of communism took 10 years in Poland, 10 months in Hungary, 10 weeks in Germany, and 10 days in Czechoslovakia.
In some ways, the twentieth century brought much disruption to Prague, but in other ways, Prague had been mostly fortunate, compared to most of the rest of Europe, over that same time. As Filip told us, his grandfather was born in 1919 and since that time, there have been eight different governments in this country. They had been part of the Austrian Hungarian Empire with various “republics” (including a socialist republic) in between. They had also been united with Slovakia (where we were for a half day earlier in the week) and during most of the twentieth century the country was named Czechoslovakia. In 1993, they became their own nation again, and have since been the Czech Republic.
But the fortunate thing for the Czechs is that most Czechs saw relative little disruption during the first and second world wars. During WWII, the Nazis did take control of the entire country, but they left most of the Czechs alone – except for the Jews. Tens of thousands of Jews in the Czech Republic were sent to Nazi concentration camps. The last part of our walking tour of Prague included a visit to the Jewish quarter where Filip told us the long history of the Jewish population there. On Sunday, we returned to that neighborhood on our own to visit the oldest surviving synagogue in Europe – it’s over 600 years old – and in fact, it’s one of the oldest surviving synagogues in the world.
In 1945, the Soviets “liberated” Prague and the Czech Republic from the Nazis. However, they soon became another totalitarian power that dominated this region for nearly 45 more years. On Sunday, we also took it upon ourselves to visit the Museum of Communism, which documented the rise of communism worldwide and specifically told the story of the role that communism and the Soviet Union played in the second half of the 20th century in the Czech Republic (then known as Czechoslovakia). The museum was really well done. It documented just about every aspect you could think of – from the larger context of history right down to people’s personal stories.
In 1989, Wenceslas Square was the site of the landmark student protests that were part of the Velvet Revolution. Our walking tour on Saturday walked us through that plaza, with Filip providing great commentary about what happened there. It was also where the people rallied around anti-communist activist Vaclev Havel. Following the fall of the Soviet occupation, Havel was elected the first President of the Czech Republic. It was from Wenceslas Square that he also spoke at the rallies and became a face for the movement.
On Sunday night, we returned to Wenceslas Square on our own to conclude our last day in Prague. We picked up a couple of sausages from some street food kiosks then sat down at a café and got a few last Czech drinks, while smoking Cuban cigars we had picked up at a cigar store earlier in the day.
Our Sunday had started with mass at the chuch of St. Thomas and St. Augustine in Prague. They had an English-speaking mass at 11am. As far as I could tell this mass was mostly filled with tourists (like us) and ex-pats living there. The priest came out and gave us a historical overview of the church. It was started in the 12th century! He also told us how the liturgy of this mass would slightly differ from what we normally experience at a Catholic mass back home, which is actually named the “Roman” mass. The mass today is one that went back to the 11th century and is named the “Catholic” mass. It was also interesting that we were at this church on the Solemnity of St. Augustine – because that’s one of the patron saints of this parish and they paid a wonderful tribute to him ahead of the main readings for the day.
The evening before, we had met up with my friend Joe Endicott, who was once an intern at The James Madison Institute in Tallahassee, about four years ago. He now works for Florida Senator Aaron Bean, who is based out of Jacksonville. Joe is originally from California and he was in Prague with his parents, as they were doing their own Central European trip. He met us at the Letna Beer Garden in Prague, which also has a great view overlooking the city. We were there just before sunset and took in a few good Czech beers and some sausages. Lots of meat and potatoes on this trip, but we were still enjoying it. Nothing goes better with a Czech beer.
We then walked down the hill and back into the center of the city and made our way to Anonymous Bar, as well as a few others that Joe had been accustomed to while he studied abroad here seven years ago while in college. He said it’s surprising how much has changed since his last visit here. I was wondering since we arrived how many more people were coming to Prague this year compared to seven years ago as the country gains in economic prosperity and cultural interest.
Our tour guide Filip had told us that the Czech Republic was a “small, insignificant country.” He was from Prague and lived in this country his whole life. He has been a tour guide here for seven years. He absolutely loves his city and his “small, insignificant country.” He said because of this feature, they are mostly left alone, out of world affairs, with less responsibility. They get to keep their Czech culture and they love people coming to visit them. He said “we need big, important countries like the United States … to run the world, we need large countries like Germany… to run Europe… and we need countries like the United Kingdom… to run away from Europe.” Part of this was in jest, but part of it had some truth.
From what I can tell, the Czechs seem to love America and Americans. They know the role we played in the defeat of communism. They despise communism and socialism and hold free markets and capitalism in high regard. It is very recent in their history that they had to fight the ideologies and they have seen the power of economic freedom and democracy transform their country since 1989. That’s why Marshall and I decided to end our last hours on this 11-day trip at Wenceslas Square.
In 1945, Wenceslas Square was where the Soviet tanks rolled in to “liberate” the Czech people from the Nazis. In 1989, it was the site of the Velvet Revolution. One day, over 600 young people, mostly students, came to the Square in protest. The Soviets surrounded the area, closed off all the streets and beat the students with clubs. Many were seriously injured. But that act woke up a nation. And within days, more than a million people filled the area. Vaclav Havel spoke, and within days, the nearly 45-year communist rule over the Czech people came to a bloodless end.
We did as my friend Andrew Bulovsky had recommended prior to this trip: “If you want to see a place, go to Google maps; if you want to experience it, eat their food, drink their beer, and talk to their people.”
We decided one more element needs to be added to Andrew’s quip: “listen to their music.” We did that in the beer gardens of Munich and Prague, in the hills of Salzburg, the opera house in Vienna, the streets of Bratislava, and the restaurants of Budapest. We experienced the culture, we appreciated the history, and we are leaving with the spirit of Central Europe embedded in us for a lifetime. That spirit is one of a free people, who aren’t leaving their culture to despots, but carrying it on – in lively fashion – to the next generation. May many more follow our adventures through Central Europe!