2015.04.09 – 11
For our final major group excursion we go to Prague and Dresden.
The train ride isn’t quite as long as the one to Dusseldorf, just five hours or so. Our train car had private cabins that sat six. We all began to make Harry Potter references as we sat down. Since we are not young wizards and witches off to Hogwarts, the space was quite cramped and our knees were banging into one another. However, as I was attempting to recline the chair, I realized that the seat could be pulled all the way out, and so everyone did this and we created a large bed where everyone could lay down. Then we were like the grandparents from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
As we made our way from Berlin, past Dresden, to Prague we saw the scenery change from the flatland of Brandenburg into the hilly topography of Bohemia. Our train ride was a rather early one so we arrived to our hostel in the afternoon and soon set out to look at some architecture.
Our hostel is conveniently located along the Tram 22 and we were able to make a straight shot to the Prague Castle. There we were able to walk the grounds while Jan regaled us with the history of the castle in relation to the history of Prague. One particular architect, Jože Plečnik was critical in the renovation and restoration of the spaces in the 1920’s after WWI.
Of course one of the buildings we had to go into was the gothic cathedral. Inside it holds the King’s crowns. Myth has it that he who is not the rightful ruler that wears the crown will be cursed with death. When the Nazi’s occupied Prague, Reinhard Heydrich, took the crown and wore it as a joke and as an insult to the Czech. Then only three weeks later, he was assassinated.
On the castle grounds is a rather touristy medieval street that actually used to serve industrial purposes. Here we passed by an apartment that Franz Kafka once lived in. The Czech are quite proud of Kafka and for his contributions to literature, and so there are a lot of places where one may purchase such paraphernalia and learn about his life.
Making our way back to the old town center we crossed the famous Charles Bridge, which dates back around 4-6 centuries ago. Even though it was absolutely packed the bridged offered fantastic views down the river and back towards the castle and across the river to the old town center.
Ending our first night properly, we ate at a very old restaurant that has been open since 1466. With such a large menu, my friends and I were finding it difficult to figure out what we each wanted. There was a platter that served four called the Bohemian wedding, which we were originally on the fence for getting. But as soon as the idea of getting TWO Bohemian weddings entered our imaginations we were won over. The six of us sat there with excitement, naturally because we ordered two weddings. Each platter came with a whole duck, along with roast pork, roast beef, some fatty bratwurst, both red and white cabbage, and an assortment of different dumplings – potato dumplings, cranberry and herb dumplings, and bacon and cheese dumplings. On top of this, we had some original Budweiser (the Czech kind, completely unrelated to, and much better than, its American cousin “in-law”) Understandably; our table was the loudest of the student group since we had ourselves a true feast with good food, good drink, and good company. Here are some photos of the carnage (slightly graphic). – Somehow, that night, we still managed to avoid sleep and go out to appreciate the nightlife, even after eating all of that food. I guess the electro-swing was a good digestive.
Reflecting on just the first day, I realized that the Czech are very good at speaking English. Granted, Prague is a rather touristy city, and the places we visited are also touristy and on top of that, none of us know an ounce of Czech so we don’t even attempt to try to complicate things by attempting their language. However I am still rather surprised by how many are so fluent in English. My hypothesis (which is unscientific) is that Czechs probably don’t expect those of different nationalities to know how to speak Czech. Whereas, Parisians or Berliners may expect their tourists to know a little bit of French or German before coming to visit. Because of this difference, it may be easier to master English, since everyone knows a little bit of that, and not everybody knows a little bit of Czech. Having said that though, Europeans in general, in my opinion, are much more worldly in the languages that they know and can speak.
The next day was pretty similar to the first, in that we walked around the city while Jan informed us of the significance of each building. One that I found to be most profound was a church that was close to the center of the city. There, just tucked into the side of the building in a memorial to two Czech resistance commando spies that assassinated Reinhard Heydrich. These two men, Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík were trained in England and were given the assassination as a secret mission. Studying the routinely movements of Heydrich they devised a plan where they would gun him down. But unfortunately, the gun malfunctioned the day of and so their backup plan was to use a grenade, but even that did not go perfectly, as it landed in the rear of the car and only knocked out Heydrich, suffering only a minor wound in his abdomen. These two spies fled the scene and had to go into hiding jumping from house to house while the Nazi’s tortured and interrogated innocent people. The two spies found shelter and secrecy with the church and lived in the crypt below. It wasn’t until a colleague of the spies that went to the Nazis to reveal their identities and location that they were in trouble. The church served as a site of battle and struggle where the Nazis took the spies by surprise. Trying everything, the Nazis tried shooting them, getting in with ladders, throwing grenades inside, and even attempted to flood the crypt. But the two men would only return fire, steal the ladders, throw back the grenades, or slow the flooding by draining it elsewhere. The spies were indefinitely trapped however, and their last hope was to dig their way to the sewage line that was under the street right in front of the church, where they could hopefully make their escape to the river. However they committed suicide with their last two bullets when they were just two meters away. It’s quite incredible when buildings have associations with such historical events, yet it is such a shame that the memorial is so small and underwhelming for such a dramatic and even pivotal event in the history of Czech resistance against Nazi occupation.
While reflecting on the second day, I came to see how diverse and eclectic the architecture is in Prague. Here you find next to one another baroque with modernist buildings. Which is rather weird considering that this city did not suffer so much damage as Berlin, yet it somehow has the ability to absorb new buildings into its dense urban fabric. The city is almost like an amoeba that absorbs anything and everything, growing more and more dense with every added or renovated building. It’s hard to tell where the medieval ends and the Classical, Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque, Modern, and Contemporary begin since everything speckles the city and integrated. The only clear delineation in the urban planning is the high rise buildings far out in the distance close to the ridges and hills framing the city while the dense historical core is maintained at a much lower building height.
For the next day and our final day in Prague we made a visit to the Villa Müller Haus, designed by Adolf Loos. We had studied this house a long time ago, way back in freshman year when studying different techniques for organizing spaces. Loos’ architectural principal was to organize and create spaces based on its specific function. For instance in the Müller Haus the living room is the largest and therefore has the highest ceiling as well. While the dining room is more private and so has a lower ceiling and is raised from the level of the living room to delineate space and create a sequence of movement. It is very hard to explain Loos’ architectural philosophy on spaces through words and drawings, or even photographs. It really takes one to occupy the space in order to fully understand how the building worked architecturally. Also, they did not allow photography inside the house, which was a bit of a bummer. But at least we got some nice pictures of the outside. The rest of the day was up to us to do what we wanted and so a couple of us went back to the old town center to try out some of the local street food, which by the way, the bratwurst they have in Prague is absolutely delicious and a must-have while in the city. They also have huge chunks of park on a rotisserie that they carve to order and charge by weight. I would have eaten some, had I had enough money, but by then I was already getting to the end of my budget and didn’t want to go over it. Guess I’ll just have to come back!