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Kasteel Well Week 2: Prague

  • February 13, 2013
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Our 2nd weekend here marked we’d officially been in the Netherlands for 2 weeks and it also marked our first free travel weekend.  We started off on an optional excursion to Maastricht led by 2 of our professors, which gave us the opportunity to see a city that we had never even heard of.  Despite only seeing a small sliver of the city, I began to grasp a bit of what made the city so special.  Founded by the Romans almost 2000 years ago, the city has continued to develop through present times.  There are still sections of the walls that fortified the city in medieval times.  We entered the city through Helpoort (“Hell’s Gate”) which is the oldest city gate in the Netherlands.  The name came from the prison cell above the gate.  Prisoners could see the gallows from the cell, so the cell was their gateway to hell.  We continued to tour the Basilica of Our Lady – an 11th Century church – which has the most beautiful organ I have ever seen.

Organ at Basilica of Our Lady, Maastricht

We grabbed lunch in Maastricht but then left the group as we had to find our way to Aachen, Germany in order to catch our overnight bus to Prague.  This was just the start of our sketchy journey… We walked from the Aachen HBF (main train station) for about an hour – through Aachen, through the outskirts of Aachen, pretty-sure-we’re-not-in-Aachen-anymore Aachen – all the way to our bus stop.  A single concrete building lit by one streetlamp was all that gave us hope that we were in the right place.  There was a man in the office that leaned his head out and asked us something in German, so as we stared at him trying to figure out what he said, he then asked “Prague?” to which we nodded.  He said wait here and so we did.  For the next 2 hours as we watched him pack up and leave.  Just as we began to give up hope that this bus existed, a bus rolled in and we got on it despite not being sure if it was our bus.  Thankfully it was and after 12 hours on the bus with a puking baby we finally arrived in Prague.We had printed directions to our hostel but realized we didn’t have a map and couldn’t find any street signs, so we just started wandering in the general direction of where we thought our hostel was.  It was roughly 06:00 as we were wandering through an area that became increasingly obvious that were not in the right place.  We found a hotel in this Soviet-era neighborhood and asked for directions and finally walked into our hostel.

Armed with a map and some suggestions of what to see from the friendly man at the front desk, we were on the tram headed to Prague’s Old Town Square.  Standing in the center of the square we were surrounded by beautiful architecture, including the famous Astronomical Clock.  Jen wanted to see the clock change at noon, so we had just under an hour to fill when we saw that you could go up in the tower.  Armed with tickets, (student discounts rock!) we headed up the tower and were graced with a beautiful view of the entire city.

Prague Castle from Astronomical Clock

Prague Castle from Astronomical Clock

At this point in time, we were running on about 30 hours without sleep. Everything was funny.
We eagerly waited for the clock tower to change and the result was interesting.  Some parts moved around but it didn’t meet my expectations of fireworks with a light show.  It was fun to see regardless of my ridiculously high hopes.  I managed to find the Hard Rock Cafe (had to buy a pin!) and then we meandered over to the Charles Bridge.  The bridge was teeming with tourists looking at the beautiful sculptures and haggling with street artists over paintings and other souvenirs.  We took our time to enjoy the beautiful weather and view as we crossed over the river on our way to the Prague Castle.

I know I will not be able to fully capture our lunch experience in words, but my friend Abby did the best I think any of us will be able to so read her description about halfway down on her post here: http://youonlykasteelonce.wordpress.com/2013/02/05/prague/  The delirium from lack of sleep had set in enough for us to think we were hallucinating, but the pictures prove we weren’t.

St. Vitus Cathedral

St. Vitus Cathedral

We spent a few hours wandering around the Prague Castle, the main feature being the St. Vitus Cathedral.  Although I took many pictures of the cathedral, I don’t think any photograph will capture the beauty and sheer scale of this cathedral.  The interior is surreal, I thought I was looking at a painting when I first walked in.  The amazing interior lit through gorgeous stained glass windows is complemented by the detailed gothic towers that made up the exterior of the cathedral.

That evening we ate at a local restaurant and we each tried some traditional Czech dishes.  Venison goulash, fried Olomoucké syrečky (cheese only found in the Czech Republic), and roast duck were some of the dishes, but the holy grail of the meal was our dessert.  It can be summed up in two words: honey cake.  We had bought one slice as a group and we all left with claw marks on our arms as we were battling each other to eat it.

Prague Metronome

Prague Metronome

In the morning we found ourselves trekking through a park to find the Metronome.  Not really sure what we were looking for, we discovered an overlook that gave us a beautiful view of the Vltava River flowing through the city as the sun began to peek up over the buildings.  We took in the view (and a few “selfies”) and then wandered over to the Metronome.  We figured we’d find something but we didn’t think we would find a 75-foot-tall functioning metronome that has kept the beat – 6 beats per minute (I counted, band geek problems…) – since it was constructed in 1991.

From this point on, we went in search of the Prague Fire Department.  A search that would take us on several tram rides around the city, asking multiple people – including the police – who had no idea where we could find a fire station.

Hasičský Záchranný Sbor, Hlavního Města Prahy (Fire Brigade, Capital City of Prague)

Hasičský Záchranný Sbor, Hlavního Města Prahy
(Fire Brigade, Capital City of Prague)

But Abby was determined and she eventually found the city’s central station.  The firefighters were playing a game of hockey in the courtyard, but one put down his hockey stick to give us a tour of the station.  He showed us their trucks and some gear, and also joked about them playing a lot of hockey.  He said they are 600 firefighters working in Prague  – 1 day on, 2 days off – so approximately 200 firefighters on each day.  Their station averages about 4 calls per day.  Abby traded her fire patches for one of the Prague Department patches and we continued on our way.

Having seen what we wanted to see, we picked up a few souvenirs in one of the street markets and made our way to the train station to head home.  After some frantic running circles around the station trying to find the shuttle bus to the airport, we made our way to the airport and – after one last slice of honey cake – headed home.