During our two-week Easter break, Renee and I went on an adventure to Prague, Vienna and Budapest. I can honestly say that it never occurred to me to visit those places, but I’m so glad that I did. Not only is Eastern Europe very different than the United States, but it also is very different than Ireland, and it was clear almost immediately that this would be a memorable trip: the first morning I woke up covered in tiny bites that quickly became swollen, aching welts. It brought me back to the time I stayed in a sketchy motel in Missouri for an Ultimate Frisbee tournament my freshman year of college and I woke to tiny creatures eating my skin. But there was not much to be done this time except to ask the hostel for some money back, buy some anti-itch cream (at least I think it was; the description was all in Czech) and distract myself by exploring the city.
In order to successfully take my mind off of my burning skin we decided to take a tour of Prague Castle. While waiting in line to purchase tickets we struck up a conversation with a middle-aged Australian couple and ended up hanging out with them for the three-hour tour. We followed our leader, Pavel, all around the various Cathedrals and government buildings inside the castle, including a statue of a naked boy that is supposed to grant fertility to whoever rubs a particular area of the statue. I can tell you that section was much more polished than the rest, but I did not try it because I’m not really looking for fertility in my life right now. Our Aussie friends had a good laugh over it.
Then Pavel took us outside to view the gardens. As we headed out of the castle gates, past the guards, it suddenly started to snow in thick, white sheets. The snowfall was fleeting and melted quickly, but our friends from Australia had never seen snow before so they were ecstatic. I have never seen 60-year-olds act like gleeful 6-year-olds before (imagine being 60 and never seeing snow before!). I offered to take their picture, and then the snow was gone as quickly as it came. The whole moment lasted maybe a minute, but when I turned around, Pavel and our group were gone without a trace. I used to joke to Renee that I’m bad luck on tours because I always get left behind, but now I’m really starting to believe it. The four of us wandered around the castle for a while before tagging along behind another group for the last half hour of the tour. Renee and I would have been perfectly fine on our own – after all, we easily could have found our way back to the city and our hostel – but it was fun to get lost with someone else. The four of us walked back to Charles Bridge together before parting ways to find our respective hostels. They were leaving the next morning, which was too bad because Larry used to work for a cultural radio station in Queensland and I would have loved to hear more about it. They were heading to Ukraine next and were worried that they wouldn’t even be able to make it in there. I guess I will never know if they did, but I’m glad we met them. I’ve spent a lot of time around 20-year-olds this semester so it was kind of nice being around an older couple. Almost like having parents for a few hours.
The highlight of Prague was the Old Town Hall Tower. We waited in line for at least 45 minutes, so by the time we climbed the endless spiraling ramps and steps we only had ten minutes at the top before we had to rush back down to catch a free walking tour of the city. But those few minutes were beyond worth it. There was a superb 360 view of the city and the Easter Markets in the Old Town Square down below us. From our perch we could see swarms of tourists gawking at the World’s Second Most Overrated Destination (apparently) – the Astronomical Clock.
The clock, Orloj in Czech, is a complex and beautiful system of gears and statues that remind us of the four deadliest sins: vanity, greed, death and pleasure. Three times a day, as the clock chimes, these statues move and perform. We didn’t get a chance to see it, but tourists will stand there for unreasonable amounts of time just to see the clock dance for 30 seconds.
The Astronomical Clock is almost as famous for its backstory as it is for its appearance. One famous legend about Orloj is that Mikulas Hanus built the intricate clock in 1410, making the city internationally famous. However, Prague officials were so worried that he would build another one in a different city that they had Hanus blinded. Hanus didn’t appreciate this very much, so he jumped into the gears of the clock, rendering it frozen for the next hundred years. I suppose that’s some sort of vengeance, but I think I would have opted to throw something else down there, instead of myself. Regardless of its bleak history, the clock is just one historic and beautiful aspect of a wonderfully unique city.