The unassuming beauty of Prague in the heart of Europe

A small river flows through the city and its inhabitants live along its banks. Prague’s topography appears to be that of an ordinary European town, but what is unusual is that it is not ‘small’ at all.

The Beauty of the Unexpected

When I came to Prague, the Czech Republic had just joined Schengen one month earlier and customs at the border were still as vigilant as they had been before joining Schengen. I came to Prague on a whim, but I didn’t expect it to be so beautiful.

In the six months I lived in Europe, Prague was the most impressive and satisfying city to visit. When planning my trip, Prague’s name was a big problem – Prague in English, Prag in German and Praha in Czech – just like my departure city, Vienna, which is called Wien in German and Vienna in English, and Prague is one of the more unusual places when it comes to transport. The easiest way to get to Prague from Vienna is by bus, which takes only 5 hours to get to the city and costs the least, at 20+ Euros one way and just under 50 Euros return. When we arrived at the bus station in Prague, we found out that Prague is one of the central stops for bus travel in Europe, and that you can take a bus all the way to Berlin or even Amsterdam.

First impressions

The Czech Republic, where Prague is located, was once an ancient Bohemian kingdom, beautiful in every way, but also messy in every way.

The first time I visited Prague was back in the days when there was no WiFi or 3G. There were so many things to see, but they could be summed up in one person – Charles IV. Prague’s main attractions – the Grand Palace, the Astronomical Clock, the Cathedral and the Charles IV Bridge – are all inseparable from this name. Prague is simply – his country. Luckily, this Charles had good taste and left behind a beautiful Prague.

Charles IV lived at the height of the Holy Roman Empire, and Prague was the capital at that time. After this glorious period, Prague experienced the somewhat comical “twice thrown out of the window” incident. It was not until the Prague Spring in modern times that Prague became communist. Prague’s position in Eastern Europe was a little more communist than Vienna, a little more petty than Poland, and a peaceful union and break-up with Slovakia, a rare place where ethnic and cultural ideologies were completely melted down. It is a rare place where ethnic and cultural ideologies have been thoroughly melted together. The rarest thing is that the architecture is untouched by fire.

The Astronomical Clock is a must-see in Prague, located in the old city council building, which is also the site of the “twice thrown out of window” incident.

Twice thrown out of a window

As the capital of the Holy Roman Empire, both incidents were related to the conflict between the Holy Roman Empire and Protestantism. In general terms, the old Holy Roman Empire (Roman Catholicism, centred on the Vatican and the longest-standing church in the world) and the new (Protestant Christianity, reformed from Roman Catholicism, which differs from Roman Catholicism in that it does not obey the Holy See and only follows the Bible as its supreme authority, so that there is a separation of church and state. The English-speaking world of the United States and Britain is now mainly Protestant territory. Continental Europe is still predominantly Roman Catholic.) There was a struggle for power between the Before the emergence of Protestantism, the Catholic Church held almost all the countries of Europe and burned whoever it wanted, including previously burning the rector of Charles University in Prague because of his anti-Roman Church leanings.

Thrown out of the window twice, simply because the Protestants of the time were unhappy with the long-standing Roman Church in power, they simply and brutally threw them out of the small window of the Parliament building where the Astronomical Clock was located. It was not enough to throw them once, but twice. After the first throw, a war was fought and the Holy Roman Empire recognised the status quo of the Bohemian faith. And after the second time, 30 nobles who had organised the throwing of the people to try to gain independence were executed, triggering a small European war, the Thirty Years’ War. It ended with the Holy Roman Empire’s then Habsburgs conceding defeat. The war left the Holy Roman Empire in name only and the countries went back to their own ways. Bohemia, which had been with Germany (Prussia, or Austria-Hungary, as the case may be), returned to its own fold until the First World War, when Germany became untenable and Czechoslovakia (including Bohemia, Slovakia and Moravia) became independent from Austria-Hungary.

The beauty of Prague is that it is a painting at all times. On the Charles IV Bridge, too, there was always the artist who painted the portrait.

“I’m just against kitsch.” –Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

In the work of the Nobel Prize-winning ‘Little Lee’, Kitsch is defined with uncanny precision. Perhaps this is why Prague is so beautiful in its own right, because it knows what kitsch is and it is against it.

In Prague’s history, the changes of the Prague Spring cannot be avoided. Even in fiction and film, the Prague Spring has been brought to the screen again and again. Communism or capitalism? Unity or division? These are sharp questions that have been peacefully resolved in this peculiar Czech country. By referendum, the Czech Republic and Slovakia were harmoniously parted (in fact, originally they were also two provinces, not too far apart, the Czech Republic being geographically closer to Austria and Slovakia to the Soviet Union.)

In the middle of Europe, on the dividing line drawn between capitalism and socialism, and still beautiful without being condescending, Prague is definitely worth a visit. It is not like Switzerland, where “neutrality” is a clear selling point for self-preservation. Nor is it like Austria, where the culture is purely aristocratic and all about the sex. It is, as the novel says, all about not being “strange”. There is no need to hold on to unity for the sake of it, no need to be fashionable for the sake of socialism, even if it is already socialist it can always be revolutionised back, it is perhaps part of the bohemian character to let go when you can.

Of course, perhaps in the eyes of the Czechs, Milan Kundera himself, who is bent on the Nobel Prize for Literature, is also a caricature. For the biggest literary figure here is Kafka. This writer, who has spent his life complaining about being too busy with his ‘livelihood’ and too little with his ‘life’, is also typically Czech. Although Kafka’s work is not easy to read, his views on ‘livelihood’ are probably shared by many.

And as for touring the Czech Republic? There are plenty of ‘surprises’ too.

Language: The official language of the Czech Republic is either Czech or German, so if you don’t speak either language, it is advisable to learn at least a few key words temporarily, such as at least reading the menu.

Security: We didn’t encounter any thieves in the Czech Republic, although it was dirty. However, there have been a number of instances of fake police (actually, it’s not unusual to say real police scams) scamming Asian tourists, and the way to deal with this is to buy a multi-day transport pass so that there are absolutely no loopholes for the other side to check the tickets. (Because Prague is an open ticketing system in Europe, it is often impossible to find a ticket machine or ticket machine, so buy a pass and you’ll be all set.)

Food: In retrospect, perhaps a fair amount of the good feeling about Prague comes from the food. The food is basically the same as in the German-speaking part of the country, with all kinds of pork knuckles and sauerkraut, and we ordered 1.5kg of pork knuckles at one restaurant for an average of less than €10 per person. (The Czech Republic was still using the krona, so you need to exchange it at the hotel if you don’t have a large amount.) I also came across a Czech market and the hollowed out toasted bread rolls were quite tasty, I’ll post a picture when I find them. The rest is basically the same as in Germany, currywurst and roasted chestnuts, so carnivores can help themselves.

Accommodation: It is advisable to stay in a cheap and legal hotel, as low-grade hostels run the risk of being robbed by shady shops and carry as little cash as possible, which is common knowledge in Eastern Europe.


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