We arrived in Prague on the doorstep of my host uncle’s apartment. Built into a hillside which overlooked city center, the flat boasted a large terrace and afforded a spectacular view of the city. It was situated at the heart of the community Kobylisy and the subway station and tram stops there granted convenient access to the entirety of Prague. However, the entirety of Prague is a very large area and I was intimidated by the task of navigating it alone. Whether she meant to or not, my host aunt dispelled this fear in the most unorthodox of ways. She sent her kids to show me around.
I don’t mean we walked around the neighborhood and back. No, just before dusk on that first night, my eleven and eight year-old host cousins, young brother and I were sent to buy bread from a nearby bakery and to visit a park a quarter of the way across the city! The boys took me to the metro station where the bakery was located, showed me how to purchase tickets for the subway, bus and tram systems, then dragged me back onto the streets above. We caught a tram and rode it for several minutes until we reached a large park, which brimmed with streams and lakes. The temperature in Prague was frigidly below average and these small bodies of water were largely frozen over.
My three charges ran and slid and jumped carelessly all over the ice. I remember what it was like to be a young boy, so I could understand and didn’t want to spoil their fun. Yet, as the present adult, I suffered a small heart-attack every time the ice cracked. I was relieved when we finally returned to the tram. What a first impression that would have been! To step through the front door, carrying the half frozen form of one of my host cousins.
My host family spent that night in Prague, but departed the next morning for Slovakia. That left me in one of Europe’s greatest cities for the next seven days. What an opportunity… I simply had to see it all!
On the subway the next morning, headed for the historic Wenceslas Square, my host aunt explained how to get around the city, what sites to see, what to do in case of an emergency and so on. When we reached the square, her lecture shifted from my well-being to the history of Prague. She recalled when her 12 year-old self had sat on her father’s shoulders, amid tens of thousands of then Czechoslovak citizens all jingling their keys and demanding the end of communism. As a result, just weeks later, the journalist, playwright and activist Vaclav Havel (above) would be elected president on December 29th, 1989 and begin Czechoslovakia’s first real foray into democratic government since the Nazis invaded in the 1930s.
Exiting Wenceslas Square, my aunt showed me to the tower which marked the entrance into Prague’s old town then left me to explore on my own. I spent the rest of the day wandering where I could, from grand squares to empty side streets. I have a method when it comes to traversing old European cities. Get lost. Just keep turning until you no longer have any way of orienting yourself. Then sit down at a cafe and enjoy the atmosphere. It is when you are lost that you find the places where they speak to you in the native language first and where you can watch local people go about their daily lives.
Large cities like Prague are designed to funnel tourists down the same avenues, to the same restaurants, shops and sites. These aren’t the places you find local spirit. Most of the people aren’t Czech and most of the things you will encounter are Americanized, so that we [Americans, as well as Canadians, Brits etc.] feel more at home while we travel, as odd as that might seem.
I managed to get lost wonderfully that first day in the city. After visiting Prague castle, I decided to return to Charles’ Bridge a different way than I had come. Climbing down the opposite side of the hill, I briefly passed through what looked to be a small business or government district of sorts. I walked a bit farther and the buildings suddenly parted onto a beautiful park—or what I assumed would be beautiful in the spring and summer months. This space was filled with hundreds of dormant trees, all laid out in the tell-tale array of an orchard. I walked beneath the barren boughs, to the opposite end of the park, wondering if there was another exit or if I would have to return to where I started.
As it happened, I discovered one of the most charming roads I have yet encountered in Europe. The winding cobblestone street snaked up the hills, lined first by crumbling brick and plaster walls the color of aged parchment, then by various classical homes and buildings behind the barriers. I mourn that my camera was not ready to catch the moment, for, as I paced down this enchanting boulevard, a nun stepped out of a wooden door set into the wall and glanced up at me. With the cityscape of Prague in the background, this would have made for a stunning shot. Alas, she turned and began briskly jogging down the road, black garments fluttering through the cold air behind her.
Still following this path, I encountered more and more people, though the majority remained local. I ended up in an area dominated by multiple foreign embassies. I walked past waving flags from across the world: Italy, Germany, Sweden and numerous others I couldn’t exactly place. The final one that I passed just happened to be the US embassy—immediately beyond it, the roads filled with tourists again… go figure.
That just about concludes my first day in Prague. It is a wonderful city and I hope that I get to return in fairer weather. There are many other destinations across Europe that I desire to visit, but I don’t know if I can return to the USA without seeing the “Golden City of a Hundred Spires” once more.