After Vienna for Christmas it was time for New Years in Prague. We set ourselves up in a little hostel in the Nove Mesto area of the town where we could quickly get to all parts of town with the extensive public transportation system. We decided to get a good introduction to the city with a walking tour on our first day.
We met our tour group in front of the National Museum at the end of Wenceslas Square. This square is where the political demonstrations of the Velvet Revolution took place in 1989 which led to the end of the Soviet occupation of the region. This is also where, 20 years before that, the 21 year old student Jan Palach lit himself on fire to protest the Soviet occupation. Our tour took us down the long square which is lined with several great old buildings mixed in with modern store fronts.
From there we moved into the Stare Mesto section of town which was founded in the early 13th century. We walked to the Staromestske namesti which is the main old town square which contains the Staromestka radnice, or town hall, the gothic Tyn Church, and the
Tynsky dvur- a fortified courtyard where customs were collected. There was also a great Christmas market going on there too.
One of the big draws of the square is the Astronomical Clock which is connected to the town hall. The clock has a dial that tracks the positions of the sun and the moon, what month and day it is, and has an hourly show with the Apostles and other moving sculptures that move around. Parts of the clock date back to 1410.
From the square we walked through Josefov which is the old Jewish quarter of the city. Home to Franz Kafka, this area of town was a thriving ghetto area until the end of the 19th century when the area was demolished to create a bourgeois district. Jews settled in Prague as early as the 10th century and were concentrated within the walled ghetto. The area is named after Joseph II who emancipated the Jews in 1781 with the Toleration Edict. Under Nazi control the remaining synagogues, the old cemetery, and the Old Jewish Town Hall were preserved to be kept as a museum of what the Third Reich though would be an extinct race.
We left the east side of the city and crossed over the Charles Bridge to the Hradcany area. The Charles Bridge was begun in 1357 under King Charles IV and finished in the early 15th century. The bridge was an important link between the two sides of the city and helped to make Prague a major trade route for the area. We walked by the Old Town tower- one of the great Gothic buildings of the city- and joined the tons of tourist on the bridge checking out the great statues that line the bridge.
Once on the west side of the river we headed up the hill to Prague castle which sits on top. More of a small walled city than a castle, there are several buildings within the walls of the castle. While there we saw the outside of the palace area, St. Vitus Cathedral, St. George Basilica, and Golden Lane- a narrow street of small (and I mean really small) houses dating back to the 15th century. We ended our tour and history lesson with a look over the Vltava River and the city below from the castle walls.
The next day, the 31st, we
spent the day checking out parts of the city we had seen on the tour in more depth and gearing up for the big celebration for New Years. The city put up a big stage in Wenceslas Square and there was music going on all night long there. Nothing like hearing Ray Charles songs in Czech.
We joined the celebrations in the square that night to check out the music and the tons of illegal fireworks going off in the square. Remember all of those firework safety commercials they used to show around 4th of July where they use a manikin to demonstrate how you're hand will get blown off when you use illegal fireworks? Well, those never made it to the Czech Republic because there were adults and little kids alike running around with fireworks the size of small ballistic missiles. It made for a great show as long as you made sure to duck the stray rockets every once in a while. After the midnight fireworks celebration we headed to one of the local clubs to dance the night away with all of the other late night party goers.
On the first we searched the city
to find the sites that were open and luckily found the Museum of Communism. Located next to a casino and above a McDonald's it's easy to see who won the cold war battle here. The museum covered some of the basics of Communism but also centered on the the Communist rule of the area from 1948 to 1989, how thousands of people were taken to work camps and prisons never to been from again, and the "velvet revolution" that let to the mostly peaceful downfall of Communism in the area.
On our last full day we headed out to check out the Charles Bridge again and St. Vitus Cathedral at Prague Castle. From there we headed to Josefov to see some of the sites there. We started with the Pinkas synagogue which has been turned into a memorial to the almost 80,000 Jews taken from the city north to Terezin, the local concentration camp and Auschwitz or other Nazi death camps. The names of all these people are written on the walls inside the synagogue. Just outside of the synagogue we walked through the Old Jewish Cemetery which has an estimated 12,000 graves piled into the small area with
some dating back to the 15th century. Our last stop was the Spanish synagogue which has been turned into a museum containing some great silver works from temples in Prague and a history of the Jewish people of the area.
The next day we spent a little bit of time in the Stare Nesto checking out the different town squares, the Astronomical clock´s dance of the Apostles on the hour, and our last bit of local food. From there we got a train north on our way to Krakow, Poland. It was a white, cold trip on the train but it was rather eery to think that hundreds of thousands of people had traveled the same tracks packed in cattle cars to be taken to the Nazi death camps we were to visit next. A rather sobering thought as we passed through the beautiful countryside to our next destination.
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