When we first began to plan this central European trip, Jeonghee and I were in agreement as to our most anticipated destination- Prague. The very name inspires romantic visions of soaring castles and exotic churches, all of which we saw in spades. Oh yeah, and good Czech pilsners, of course.
Our first stop was actually not terribly Czech at all, but awesome nonetheless- to the Korean restaurant fortuitously located right next door to our hostel. We loaded up on delicious kimchi bokkeumbap (kimchi fried rice) and tteokbeokki (fish cake and soft rice cake with veggies in spicy/sweet red pepper paste sauce), two favorites basically impossible to find in Russia. All fueled up, we headed straight for Prague Castle, the imposing palace complex that looms over the city. There we expected St. Vitus Cathedral, which boasts some of the most colorful, beautiful stained glass we’d yet seen, and walked around its squares, taking in the architecture and catching the disappointing, not very sharp changing of the guard. The view of the city was aces, though.
After that, we walked down through the narrow cobblestone streets towards the river, and the iconic, statue-lined St. Charles Bridge, with its gothic towers and another excellent view. On the other side of the Vltava River lies Old Town and the Jewish Quarter, the latter of which boasts several unique synagogues, all with rather expensive entry fees unfortunately, but I couldn’t resist shelling out to see the Old-New Synagogue, a small medieval edifice which is the oldest continuing synagogue located outside of Israel, and where stories say the Golem, the mythical clay monster which protects the Jews of Prague, was made and resides.
Next up was the center of Old Town, St. Wenceslas Square, a striking expanse surrounded by uniquely Czech architecture, with multiple sharp spires and buttresses and intricately carved facades. In particular, the Tyn Church and the Old Town Hall Tower, with its ornate Golden Astronomical Clock, are show-stoppers. While there, we sampled trdlo, a fire spit-roasted sugarbread with a unique fried flavor, as well as an interesting mix of ham, potato dumplings, and sauerkraut, alongside a spicy grilled sausage. To wash it down, we grabbed one of the bottles of Czech pilsner we loaded up on at the train station market. Some, like Kozel and Pilsner Urquell, are ubiquitous, but honestly Czech pilsners all start to taste the same after awhile- thin and bitter. Where the action’s at is with the unfiltered beers, which have more body and just a touch of malty sweetness. Kozel’s unfiltered beer and the excellent Staropramen stand out.
Our evening activity were one of the many, many classical concerts that are put on every evening in the various churches and public buildings in the city, a nice change of pace from the usual tourist-bait activities you usually see advertised. Listening to Bach, Mozart, and particularly Dvorak in a high-domed centuries-old cathedral (St. Salvator’s, in our case) is a great experience, as it’s easy to forget that many of the grandiose architectural flourishes in European cathedrals weren’t meant to please only the eye, but also the ear.
The next day began with a small side-trip to Kutna Hora, an old regal city where the royal mint once occupied, now a bit sleepier of a town but still full of some of the most impressive architecture of the whole trip. On the outside, Kostnice is unassuming, a little church surrounded by a cemetery and not much else, but underneath it lies the Kostnice Ossuary, an extremely macabre chapel consisting of several hundred years and 40,000 plus skeleton’s-worth of bone arrangements, from candlestands to crypts to even a coat of arms and the signature of one of the arrangers. It’s a truly one of a kind, truly bizarre, and not a little bit chilling experience.
Walking across town, the other main attraction of Kutna Hora, St. Barbara’s Cathedral, grows in stature and enticement. Its triple-nave, sail-like roof is unlike any cathedral I’ve seen in the world, a jewel of Czech Gothic design, and its interior is just as interesting, with plenty of space and light, ornately carved pews, and 500+ year old paintings that transport you to a more medieval frame of mind.
After an hour watching Soviet-era trains pull in and out of Kutna Hora’s sleepy small station, we returned to Prague with enough time to visit Vyserad, a former blufftop fortress and now sprawling park complex with gorgeous views of the Vltava and Prague, especially at magic hour. There was also a small church and cemetery full of Czech dignitaries including Dvorak and Jan Neruda.
As always, our trip ended with a meal. The two famous dishes we’d heard about were pig knuckle and goulash, so we rolled the dice with a tourist restaurant and tried them out to good result. The pig knuckle was basically just another cut of roast pork, but still quite tasty with horseradish, and the goulash was a bit different than other dishes I’ve tried of the same name. Served in a bread bowl, it was a thick beef gravy stew, rich and filling, quite satisfying after a long day on our feet.