A Handle on Bohemia

Recently, I have been giving some serious thought to the kind of traveller I’d like to become.

Over the last eleven months I have spent more time on the move than ever before. I visited Skye in January, Monaco in May, and May in July, while in October I walked the Great Glen Way from Fort William to Inverness. I have also been party to a growing number of weekly discussions on Twitter, all of which — taken together — have led me to ask what exactly my place within the online travel community might be? Once again, I was in search of a niche.

First, I needed to decide what kind of traveller I already was. I traced my own journey back to Romania in 2006, nearly ten years ago, when five fellow Sixth Formers and I had embarked on a road trip around rural Transylvania to mark the end of our high school studies — as you do. Before that I had travelled extensively but as a child, as part of a family unit, exploring Europe and Australasia from various bases in Scotland, England, Germany and Australia. As influential as these early adventures undoubtedly were, they were not my own — I was just a passenger. (Technically, my solo travels actually began in 2005, on a train to Cambridge where I was to receive a primer on university life at St Catherine’s College, but that’s not quite as relevant to this blog.)

In the years since I had established a comfort zone at university in Aberdeen, a city I barely left in my four years of study, then tested it with an internship in London, a sabbatical to Syktyvkar, and a pair of long-distance treks through the Scottish Highlands. I also undertook a number of smaller trips, to Corfu, the South of France, and Vatican City. I neither saw myself as a tourist or as a trailblazer, but believed I fell somewhere in between. After all, I don’t scale vertical mountains or traverse virgin jungle, but neither do I stay in resorts or sun myself by the hotel pool. I am an opportunistic traveller; I have been defined as much by opportunity as by possibility. To date I have gone where I can, when I can, and seen as much as I can.

I was reminded of that coming-of-age tour of Transylvania earlier this year when conceiving my competition entry for a travel writing scholarship being run by World Nomads and Lonely Planet. Although shortlisted for my article on Scărișoara Cave, I didn’t win the prized trip to America, leaving me to plan my own autumn vacation. I had for years wanted to go to Prague, for no other reason than having nine years ago heard it compared to the arresting city of Timișoara, so I decided that it was probably time I delivered on that nearly decade-old promise. I wished to know if I still wanted the same things from a destination, or if it would feel like a backwards step when I should be looking to the future.

I didn’t know anything about the Czech Republic, save for the fact that Hellboy II: The Golden Army had been filmed there and that the nation’s Bohemian past had influenced Herge’s eighth Tintin adventure, King Ottokar’s Sceptre. I like to travel blind, so that there is room for mystery and scope for surprise as I make my way around a foreign (or simply unfamiliar) city, but even I usually knew more about a place than that. Travel had always been so intuitive as a child that I’ve always been reluctant to plan ahead and be too proactive in my adventures. Otherwise I find myself ticking off items from an itinerary and fighting a constant feeling of disappointment that a particular attraction isn’t exactly as it appeared in the guide. I’m not interested in the city as it looked five years ago, to someone else, in different circumstances, but how it appears to me now.

The thing that had so impressed me about Timișoara, and which had given the Prague comparison such a lasting hold on my imagination, was the fact that it wasn’t one city, but several. The same was true of Budapest — which, of course, is two cities posing as one — where our 2006 road trip had begun. Almost from the moment I arrived at Hlavni Nadrazi, Prague’s main train station, having flown in from Edinburgh and caught the airport express from Václav Havel, I had that same sense of it being a confluence of influences and a crossroads in history; of, strange though it might sound, déjà vu. I recognised shades of Russia, Germany and even Britain, lending the city a familiar air despite its foreign facade. It was almost like seeing my life in travel flash before my eyes — only I was checking in rather than checking out.

Prague 1

I was eager to find a personal perspective on the city, but I was anchored to my (brand new) suitcase and at the mercy of the crowds. I had an hour or two to kill before I could dump my case in my room, so I broke it in over cobblestones and dragged it up staircases as I plotted courses around the Old Town — some for now, some for later. I felt conspicuous and restricted, unable to fully immerse myself in my surroundings, so I cut my reconnoitre short in the hope that Hotel Modrá Růže might take pity and let me check-in early — which thankfully they did. Now untethered, save for a camera around my neck and an otherwise empty rucksack on my back, I began to climb — up the tower of the Old Town Hall, so that I could get a clearer view of the city below. I took it in one arcade at a time, circling the tower as I looked out over the four quadrants of Prague: the Old Town, the Lesser Town, the New Town and the Castle Quarter.

I would spend the rest of the trip attempting to replicate the feeling I got from that first exposure, at every opportunity and from every perspective possible. I would pay to climb the Old Town Bridge Tower on Charles Bridge, the main tower of St. Vitus Cathedral, and the Lookout Tower atop Petřín hill. For as much as I enjoy meeting locals, sampling street food and visiting museums I am all too aware that I will never truly understand another culture, regardless of the amount of time I spend steeped in it. Heck, I barely understand my own. From above, however, I at least stood a chance of perceiving it. From the top of Old Town Hall, for example, I could see that the Church Of Our Lady Before Tyn was in fact accessible from the square, having already lapped it four times from street level and been unable to work out how to breach its protective ring of surrounding restaurants. Old Town Hall was almost as difficult to distinguish from its adjacent buildings, not least because it actually spilled out into them. These weren’t single, easily delineated structures; they were architectural chimeras.

I ended that first day with another climb, this time crossing the Vlatva via Svatopluk Čech Bridge in order to access the Metronome overlooking the river from Letná Park. It was another commanding view of one of Europe’s most picturesque cities, and one I had almost to myself. Outside of the Old Town I was alone save for skateboarders, dog walkers, and the occasional segway tour. At least, I thought I was, until I became aware of movement in the undergrowth. Rats. Dozens of them. By this point, however, Prague already had me, and I was too overawed to be put off by a few rodents. After all, they were soon cast in shadow, and I could watch the sun set over the Vlatva and its multitude of bridges in blissful, beautiful ignorance. It was too late to visit the castle, and besides, I get getting hungry, so I decided to leave it for the morning and instead find somewhere to eat — ideally somewhere far away from Letná Park and its smallest inhabitants.

Prague Castle isn’t really a castle, at least not in the traditional sense. Like seemingly everywhere else in Prague it is described as a complex, because rather than consist of a single construction it has grown over the years to encompass an entire campus of buildings. The church alone has had quite a history, spanning three incarnations, the most recent of which took nearly 600 years to complete. I could see the spires — both medieval and just plain old — of St. Vitus Cathedral from Charles Bridge, and rather naively assumed that I could get there simply by walking towards it. However, it proved to be a maze entirely made up of dead ends, such that I spent the best part of an hour walking in circles, or rather squares, as I searched for a means of accessing the complex above. It might lack obvious battlements but it was clear the castle had been fortified against unassuming tourists. I found the entrance eventually, having put my back to the castle and walked half a mile in the opposite direction, and instead began my ascent at Lobkowicz Palace.

As if not already confused enough, I was met at the top by three completely incongruous scenes. Firstly, I encountered a wizard in an Anonymous mask who could I suppose have been staging a one-man protest or engaging in a piece of impromptu performance art, or who may have been premeditating murder. Then I clocked a bridal party having their photographs taken against the backdrop of the Old Town, only to realise that they were standing not on part of the castle but on the roof of Starbucks, with a queue of customers looking to cross the marital set and descend the stairs into the cafe below. Finally, my attention was captured by a vendor in one of the complex’s own terraces, just as he finished serving a customer, exited his makeshift kiosk through a gaping hole in the rear, and urinated against the castle wall in full view of everyone present. The approach to the brightly coloured palaces had at first sight reminded me of Monaco, but none of this was ringing a bell at all.

I paid for a ticket that entitled me to enter seven of the complex’s constituent buildings, as well as a guided tour of the first two: the Gothic cathedral and the Old Royal Palace. Our guide was exceptional — both knowledgeable and engaging — and relayed to us with remarkable ease the complicated history of Bohemian royalty and rule in what must have been her second or third language. Perhaps my favourite aspects of the lessons, however, were the occasions in which she would interrupt herself to reprimand locals, tourists and even fellow guides alike for failing to show the country and its heritage due respect. It all started with one woman who, despite not being part of the group, had inadvertently found herself standing among us. We were in the oldest section of St Vitus admiring Alphonse Mucha’s unusual painted window when she answered her phone. Big mistake. Later, in the Old Royal Palace, I thought for a moment that we might get a live reenactment of the defenestration when she caught another guide trying to open the window in question. I was disappointed to learn that back in 1680 the original victims had survived the fall.

Prague 22

I’m no history buff, but I still found her whole spiel incredibly interesting — from the sheer number of crypts and tombs hidden within St Vitus’ Cathedral to the fact that it had been consecrated on so many occasions to such an array of patron saints. I liked, for instance, the irony that the patron saint of safe bridge crossings had met his end on a bridge, and the idea that although rebuilt no less than three times the tomb of St Wenceslaus hadn’t moved once. Whether these footnotes were true or not hardly mattered, they made for a good story and captured the imagination. Quite why history teachers back home insisted on boring their students senseless with forgettable facts and figures relating to interchangeable British kings and queens when the Bohemians were throwing people out of windows I have no idea. No wonder I’ve learned more from thirteen seasons of QI than from all my years of studying history at school. Even more appealing was the knowledge that Vladislav Hall, an architecturally noteworthy but otherwise pretty nondescript hall in the Old Royal Palace, was once used for indoor jousting contests. Imagine.

I’m not saying that history isn’t important to some, just that it isn’t particularly interesting to all. Knowing what date a building was founded or a battle took place doesn’t provide much insight into what life was like at the time, whereas the myths and legends that once gave the collective unconscious nightmares at least give a sense of where their minds were at. It’s for this reason that my next stop was the Old New Synagogue back at Svatopluk Čech Bridge (I’m nothing if not organised), the alleged home of the Prague Golem, a Jewish bogeyman built by Judah Loew ben Bezalel to protect the ghetto from anti-Semites. The building itself was small and the admission pretty steep, but it was worth it just to stare at the ceiling and wonder what might be — but probably isn’t — up there. I don’t remember much from Chemistry, apart from the fact that it rained all over Alchemy’s parade, but here, in this city, itself a golem forged from odds and ends, it didn’t seem quite so unlikely. It was still overpriced, though, so I kept the skullcap as a souvenir.

I hadn’t climbed any stairs in a while, so I set a course for Petřín hill, back the way I’d come, again, with the aim of climbing the Lookout Tower before sunset. The funicular was still in the process of being renovated, but it was a nice night and I needed the exercise. It had snowed earlier in the day, while I was climbing the Old Town Bridge Tower on my way to the castle, but the path wasn’t too slippery at all. Prague’s Lookout Tower was inspired by Paris’ Eiffel Tower, and while it is only a fraction of the size it ultimately stands at a higher elevation thanks to the hill it is situated on. By the time I reached the top I was knackered, having eschewed the elevator for reasons I was too tired to remember, but with nowhere to sit I simply joined the queue of photographers waiting for their moment in front of the only open window with unencumbered views of the castle. Too cold and cramped to get comfortable, I used my allotted time to take a couple of photos and then went to find a quieter spot from which to watch the sun go down, settling on the walled garden below.

Having now climbed every tower I could think of, I decided to spend my third and final day with my feet planted firmly on the ground. I had by now crisscrossed Prague so many times and from so many direction that I had no trouble finding my way around. I wanted to see a couple of museums, but had seen too many to choose from. I decided against the toy museum wishing Barbie a happy fiftieth, the sex machine museum that seemed aimed solely at giggly hen parties, and the dizzying array of shops only masquerading as museums, covering everything from absinthe to gingerbread. Ultimately, I settled on the National Museum and the Film Special Effects Museum, in the hope that at least one might feature some dinosaurs — surely the whole point of either. The National Museum had an exhibition on death, which seemed promising enough, and although it boasted the remains of a sauropod (in the Noah’s Ark exhibit upstairs) the most interesting fossil was that of Lucy, the famed Australopithecus afarensis from my studies in Evolutionary Psychology and Luc Besson’s 2014 film. My second call, meanwhile, focused on the career of Karel Zeman, the special effects whiz behind 1955’s Journey to the Beginning of Time.

It wasn’t long before night fell once more, and exiting the Film Special Effects Museum on Charles Bridge I embarked on one final lap of the city. Ghostly figures swooped overhead, the seagulls’ white underbellies catching the light as they searched for scraps. I returned to the castle, recrossed the river at Legion Bridge, and took a moment to visit Střelecký Island below. It too was swarming with rats, but the views of Charles Bridge from river level were too good to pass up. From there I walked along the Vlatva’s south bank to the Vlado Milunić-designed Dancing House — originally Fred and Ginger — before leaving the river behind to return to the old town. I snacked on hot wine and trdelnik, dined on Staropramen and goulash in a bread bowl, and then unable to resist the urge any longer made one last visit to Old Town Hall and its mighty tower. By this point the Christmas tree had been finished and the market below was well underway, so I watched a fire-breather perform in the brightly lit square from my perch above.

So what sort of traveller do I want to be? I’m not an academic or an adrenaline junkie; nor a cultural appropriator or a vagabond chasing authentic experiences; and having chosen to visit the Czech Republic in November I’m certainly not a sunbather. I’m not looking to interfere or impose or indulge; I’m just looking to look, listen, and maybe even learn. I’m happy to be an observer.

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