Prague, the Golden City

First, I wanna apologize for how long this is — I never set out to write a novel, but there’s always so much to talk about.

Anyway, my Prague trip started at 5:30 a.m. on a Saturday, and it almost didn’t happen. Munich’s U-Bahn only runs every 30 minutes on weekends, and Tim, Sam, Britta and I got to the train station at the wrong end of a wait. We got to our bus with minutes left, but it didn’t matter — we were outbound, four hours from vacation from vacation. 

The ride through the German and Czech countrysides was beautiful and idyllic. I didn’t sleep because I wanted to see it all. I passed the time listening to Serial, and Sarah Koenig’s speech to end the final episode was brilliant and moving.

After that I read from David Halberstam’s The Breaks of the Game, the brilliant report that Halberstam produced after embedding with the Portland TrailBlazers for the 1979-80 NBA season. His writing is smooth, like honey flowing from a jar, and he asks questions about race and money that any other reporter would shy away from. It’s a fantastic timesink, and it tided me over until we rolled into Prague’s outskirts.

On the surface, Prague is a city of contradictions. Architecturally, it’s three cities in one. There is the new, all large, glass buildings, topped by billboards and neon signs, and it looks out of place next to the imposing, concrete, windowless brutalist buildings from the Soviet era.

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The clock tower in old town square

Neither the modern buildings nor the Soviet ones feel like they belong with Prague’s old city, the narrow cobblestone streets, the towering Gothic cathedrals, the oxidized-green copper cupolas. The closer you get to Prague’s center, the less you see of the new and the semi-new, and eventually you’re in a place that looks like it hasn’t changed in 500 years, other than the “free Wifi” signs outside every cafe.

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The one thing that links Prague’s old, new and ugly middle is graffiti. It covers almost every building, up to eye level, and it’s a strange blemish on this strange, beautiful city. It’s not artistic, or even cool-looking. It’s random words that I didn’t understand, drawn about half as well as typical traincar tagging.

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Despite the graffiti and the Soviet Union’s ugly architectural legacy, Prague is beautiful unlike any place I’ve ever seen. There are Romanesque churches with thick block towers, built of dark brown bricks; Gothic cathedrals with sharp, imposing spires; and Renaissance buildings with ornate facades, separated by tiny alleys and painted in pleasant pastel colors.

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The city center is a time machine. Starbucks and H&M (which is everywhere in Europe) have integrated seamlessly into the old buildings. Cars are barely wide enough to drive through the tight streets; I didn’t know what was a road and what wasn’t, and I’m not sure if the drivers were, either. Everyone drives slowly there — they have to — but they stop for nothing and no one. We learned quickly to get out of the way when we heard the light clop clop clop of wheels turning over cobblestone.

Prague has its own smell, not necessarily a pleasant one, but it’s not overwhelmingly pungent unless you walk near a manhole. It smells of sewage and every kind of food you can imagine — searing lamb and chicken, bubbling goulash, roasting potatoes. The city smells better after it rains, which it does often, and did consistently on Saturday afternoon. The rain slicks the cobblestone, and even in sneakers it feels like walking on a hardwood floor in socks.

And, in Prague, walking is all you do. We covered more than 30 miles over two days. We walked from the bus depot toward the city center, where we ate at one of the first restaurants we found, a traditional Czech place with a man dressed as a medieval soldier as its mascot. We kept walking — with our backpacks full of clothes, because we couldn’t check into our AirBNB yet — through the narrow alleys and side streets of the old city, toward the Charles Bridge, toward anything that could distract us until we could check in and settle down.

Thankfully, we were in a city full of distractions. The first was an absinthe bar that we found in the side of an alley. It was a dark place; the lighting was dim, the walls covered in high-contrast black-and-white photos of troubled historical figures (Poe, Nietzsche), and the bartenders wore all-black suits.

I’d always wanted to try real absinthe, and I knew we were in for a treat as soon as the bartenders started to prepare it. They mixed their concoction in metal cups, then melted a sugar cube into it through a special slotted spoon. They stirred the mixture with the spoon, then poured the finished product into a drinking glass.

The shot burned, not because of the alcohol, but because it was so hot from the fire. It tasted like licorice but went down smooth, then it went straight to my dome. It wasn’t a drunk buzz, and I didn’t trip, not off of only one shot, but, damn, did it feel good. I felt lightheaded in a good way, and it made my backpack feel a little less heavy on my shoulders.

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Unlike anything you’ll ever drink

Our next diversion was our quest to buy weed. Britta heard from a friend that a certain bar had what we wanted, and we found it on Google Maps after we crossed the Charles Bridge and back.

The bar in question is the embodiment of a dive. It’s underground, dark, dank, slightly sketch. The kind of place you’d expect to find drugs in a strange country. The first thing we heard was reggae music playing softly from the speakers. We ordered drinks — I got a chocolate stout — and Britta asked the bartender if they sold weed. He seemed to ignore, so she asked again, and he gave her a look that said chill the fuck out.

We sat down in a booth in the back, then the only other person in the bar sidled to our table, pulled up a chair, and asked us in a thick accent how much we wanted. He said he’d only sell us five grams, but we haggled down and bought three for 900 koruna, about $10 a gram. He pulled balled-up a bar napkin out of his pocket, and inside was the goods — very seedy, very stemmy, but better than we expected. 

Our business concluded, we trekked back across the old city to our AirBNB, a slick, upscale flat on the top floor of a beautiful old hotel. We each had a comfortable IKEA bed, and we passed out, exhausted from hours of traveling and walking, and recharged for the night.

And what a night it was. We met up with another group from the program who came to Prague, played some ridiculously entertaining king’s cup, then headed to Karlovy Lazne, the biggest nightclub in Central Europe.

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The EDM floor

It’s five floors of insanity. There is a basement club, an EDM floor, a disco floor, a hip-hop floor, and a top lounge with a stage for dancing. Every floor is hot, wild, and it’s impossible not to dance even as you climb from floor to floor. The ceilings are low and every inch of the floor is slick with sweat. You don’t dance as much as you slip and slide along the floor. It smells like musk and cigarettes.

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The top lounge

We danced in the club until around 3 a.m., then we wandered the streets of Prague and went to McDonald’s to satisfy our drunchies. The food wasn’t any different from American Mickey D’s, but the customer service was; the register clerks were friendly and courteous, probably because they make more than $8 an hour. 

After that we took an Uber back to our AirBNB and arrived around 4:30 as the sun rose. Six hours later we were back at it, and thankfully hangover-free. We ate breakfast — prosciutto sandwiches — at a street fair, and walked through the old city, up a hill to Prague Castle, a massive complex, the largest ancient castle in the world, and the seat of perhaps Europe’s finest crown jewels, those of the former empire of Bohemia.

In the old city, around the castle, on the cobblestone, you forget Prague’s modernity and its Soviet ugliness. There, it just feels old, timeless. We climbed the tower of the Basilica of St. Vitus, in the palace courtyard, a perfect spiral of 282 grueling steps, and I could sense those hundreds or thousands of priests who had ascended it before, to ring the bell or light some candles. I don’t like organized religion, but the fact that people believed enough to make that climb every day strangely moved me.

When we finally reached the summit, after what felt like eternity, we saw the most spectacular view in the city. We stayed up there for probably 10 minutes, and didn’t want to leave. On the descent we offered encouragement to people making the climb, then shuffled, exhausted, back over the Charles Bridge to find food.

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The view from the top

We ate at an Italian restaurant on a boat on the Vltava river. It was upscale, delicious and cheap; the Czech koruna isn’t valuable, equal to about 1/30 of a Euro, and a meal for three that included four glasses of wine, two iced coffees and mountains of pasta cost barely 50 Euros.

The Lennon wall was next; when we heard about it, we assumed, given the Czech Republic’s communist history, that it was the Lenin wall, but no. It’s off of the Charles Bridge, a nondescript wall that turned into a graffiti memorial for John Lennon after he was murdered. Tim brought a sharpie, and we all left our marks.

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Then we wandered down by the Vltava, played with dogs and swans, and meandered back to our AirBNB. Dinner was low key — we were totally spent — and we ate at a nice traditional Czech place, drank dark beer and scarfed down goulash from bread bowls.

Then we were out. We had an early morning, an 8 a.m. bus ride back to Munich, so we passed out and woke up just before 7. We left our AirBNB around 7:15, thinking we had time to spare for the walk, but I had punched the wrong bus station into Google Maps. We ended up 25 minutes away from our stop with 10 minutes to spare.

That was damn stressful. We sprinted until we found a taxi, and our driver blazed us to the right place. We made it with a minute to spare. It seemed a fitting cap to the trip after the way it began, and the bus pulled away from the golden city as we drifted off to sleep.

The trip was productive for me, personally. I learned that, with a little help from my friends, I could go to a strange city, where I don’t know the language, learn my way around and handle myself. It feels good.

And, after grappling with Prague’s contradictions for three day’s I finally realized them Monday morning, as we speedwalked, harried, nearing panic, to the bus station. Prague isn’t three cities in one, delineated by their architecture. It’s two cities, one that people live in and one that people flutter through on weekends.

We asked a passerby for directions to the bus depot, and he walked us there and spoke to us in perfect English.

“How do you like this republic?” he asked.

“It’s beautiful.”

“Amazing.”

“So much fun.”

Then the man chuckled and shook his head, and said, “Not for us.”

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