Happy new year to all our readers! We hope you all had an enjoyable new year and were able to spend some time relaxing with family and friends. Bring it on, 2017!
May in Germany is chock full of holidays. Most of them are religious in nature, but it doesn't matter much because it means we get time off of work! The weekend after Evelyn and I got back from Norway was another long weekend thanks to yet another holiday. Not wanting to lose out on a free 4 day weekend, we headed to a place that had been on our list for a long time: Prague. It was one of those places that was close enough to drive to, but far enough that we really needed a longer weekend to do it. And when we had longer weekends, we found we wanted to fly somewhere, you know, to maximize our time. So despite it being near the top of our bucket list, it took us nearly two years to actually go. But, I am so glad that we did!
We love the Czech Republic. We first visited in January of 2015 and fell in love. The countryside is beautiful, the cities are picturesque, the food is deliciously hearty, and the beer is CHEAP! Honestly, what's not to love?! But, despite being the capital, Prague is very different from the rest of the country (and more expensive, relatively speaking). Regardless, we still loved the city and would recommend it to anyone looking for their first foray into Eastern Europe.
We did two different walking tours while we were there. Our first morning, we went on Sandeman's New Europe Free Walking Tour of Prague. We hit up all the main tourist sites: the old town square, the astronomical clock, Jewish quarter, Wenceslas Square, St. Charles' Bridge, as well as some of the smaller areas. Our group was so big that we were split into two smaller groups, but even after the split, we numbered about 35. Honestly, it was a little too big and it was sometimes hard to hear the guide. But, Sandeman's is one of the most popular companies offering both free and paid tours in cities all over Europe, so it's to be expected. Plus it was free, so I can't really complain too much. In the future, I think we will stick to other tour operators in an effort to get a more personal feel.
But, that doesn't mean we did learn some cool stuff! Standing in front of the Astronomical clock, just off the side of the old town main square, we were told that it dates from at least the early 1400s (this is BEFORE THE PILGRIMS AND CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS!!). It shows multiple times and the position of the sun and moon, but, as this was before Galileo discovered that the Earth revolves around the sun and not vice versa, it does so using an Earth-centered galaxy approach. The clock is incredibly complex so if you really want to know more about it, head over to the Wikipedia page to read up on it.
There are two main dials. The top is the clock portion, and the bottom is a calendar. Around the exterior of the calendar portion is a ring of names. Czech people celebrate not only their birthday, but also their name day. Furthermore, Karal, our guide, informed us that the Czech naming rules are even more stringent than the German ones - you have a list of approximately 400 names to use and if you want to use a name not on the list, must supply an essay with a compelling argument.
One of the most touching stories Karal shared with us was that of Nicholas Winton. A British humanitarian, he saved 669 Jewish children during World War II by sending them to England. Years later, using a scrapbook he kept, his wife wrote to many of the children he saved. She then organized a surprise reunion for Nicholas. He passed away in 2015 at the ripe age of 106. What a life he lived!
The Jewish community was very active in Prague for many many years. During the tour, we were led through the Jewish quarter of the city that houses the oldest, still functioning Synagogue in the world. If anyone is familiar with Jewish lore, the myth of the Golem, a clay creature fashioned as a man and then brought to life, originated in Prague.
Karal also taught us the history of the English word defenestration. Two events occurred in Prague, both of which were a rebellion. Essentially, those rebelling weren't happy with the politicians running the country, so they simply threw them out of the windows. In both cases, the defenestrations caused a war - the first time, in the 1400s, it was the Hussite wars and the second time in 1555, it was the 30 Years' War.
The free walking tour ended on the banks of the Vltava River where Karal shared two more fascinating stories. While viewing St. Charles Bridge, he told us that raw eggs were used during construction as a binder in the concrete. Eggs were sourced from nearby towns, but one in particular was worried about all the eggs breaking during transit. They had a simple solution to keep them in tact - boil them! Except they obviously couldn't be used for their intended purpose. Medieval people weren't always the brightest. The second story occurred more recently in the early 2000s when the river flooded. The waters rose so high that the Prague Zoo was badly flooded. One of their sea lions took advantage of this by swimming away! He got all the way to Dresden (!) before being caught. Unfortunately, he died while being transported back.
Despite how packed the tour was, we though our guide Karal was a hoot. So much so that we ended up booking the tour of the Castle in the afternoon with him. During the castle tour, you don't go inside the castle, but you do get a good tour of the grounds, watch the changing of the guards (much less pomp and circumstance than at Buckingham Palace), get some amazing views of the city, and also meet Prague's most famous citizen. He is a man that has been protesting outside the palace for years about the government unfairly taking his land (or something like that). Most Czech people don't take him too seriously, but he is a character nonetheless. The tour meets on the east side of the river, you then walk across the river (getting another good view of St. Charles' Bridge as you do) to a tram stop, which you then take up to the castle. The tram ride sure beats having to hike up that hill, especially with a stroller!
Overall, if you're looking for a reputable company for walking tours, Sandeman's is a good bet. But, because they offer tours in many popular European cities, they are one of the busiest tour operators. This means that the free tours are often large and can even "fill up" as we experienced in Barcelona. They do a good job with hiring local people to give the tours who are incredibly knowledgeable, funny, and charismatic, but due to the size, they often lose that personal touch.