I fell in love with Prague as soon as we arrived on my first trip in 2015. It’s always held a special place in my heart. My mum visited when I was young and had told me stories about the Charles Bridge, the Old Town and the Astronomical Clock. I’ve read so many fantasy novels set in the city and so in my mind its streets have such magical potential, so many adventures just waiting for you to stumble into them. Where else to spend my birthday than my favourite city?
One of the things I find so fascinating about Prague is the city’s rich history of alchemy. It’s pretty much down to one guy, the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II. In 1576 he moved to Prague and brought with him a fascination with alchemy, magic, astrology and science. Edward Kelley and John Dee, noted English mystical types, both lived in Prague. Kelley claimed to be able to summon angels in a mirror, turn lead into gold and have created the Philosopher’s Stone. Bold claims. Sir John Dee was Queen Elizabeth I’s royal magician which is a title I’m still hoping to claim for myself one day. If you want to hear more about the bizarre and fascinating world of Prague’s alchemists, check out this The History of Alchemy podcast. It’s one of my favourites for obvious reasons.
I’ve wanted to get a tattoo of the alchemical symbols for the four elements for a while now. Someone I’d met in Berlin had just got a tattoo from One Love in Prague and told me to check it out. Within 2 hours of arriving in the city, I was lying in the tattoo studio making awkward small talk with a Czech tattoo artist. If you’re wanting to get inked, I’d 100% recommend them. It’s one of my favourite tattoos now, was reasonably priced and they took me as a walk in. I even got to skip ahead of the queue of German teenagers debating between various pieces of flash work because I came with a design and knew exactly what I wanted. It pays to be obsessed with tattoos sometimes.
We followed up this slightly (definitely) spontaneous decision with dinner at the restaurant next to the Czech Shakespeare theatre. The food was delicious (with lots of potato dumplings) but more importantly they served over 50 kinds of beer. It’s in the city centre near the creepy Don Giovanni Statue. You’ll know it when you see it. Our hostel, Advantage, was only about 15 minutes walk from Old Town. We’d stayed there the year before and weirdly were in the exact same room as before too!
Our second day was spent taking a friend of ours on a walking tour of Prague. We started in the Old Town Square under
the Astronomical Clock. Pražský orloj was first installed in 1410 and is the oldest astronomical clock that still works. It’s not only a clock, it also shows the position of the Sun and the Moon in the sky and has a calendar dial with medallions for the months. There’s an hourly clockwork show of moving sculptures that include the Apostles and Death, who’s a skeleton that strikes the time. Like all good historical buildings, this world famous clock has a grisly creation story that I just love. Buckle yourselves in kids. It’s gonna get gory. The legend goes that the Orloj was built by Jan Růže (who is also called Jan Hanuš – there’s a lot of Jans in Czech history). The clock was so beautiful that the leaders of Prague had poor Jan blinded so that he could never create another. I’ve also heard that he had his tongue and hands cut off so he could neither tell another person how to make one, or construct one blind. In revenge, our man Jan throws himself into the mechanism of the Orloj, breaking it beyond repair. It stayed broken for another hundred years, his bones jamming the mechanism in a really long lasting act of vengeance. You’ve got to love insane inventors.
After the Astronomical Clock we took our friend across the town square and through the Old Town. On the walk, I told him the story of Jan Žižka (I told you, a lot of Jans) a 14th-15th century general who fought in the Bohemian Civil Wars. He’s central to another brilliant Czech folk story. Not only was he an incredible military leader and one of the few commanders throughout history who never lost a battle he did most of this with one eye. And then with no eyes. He continued commanding because Žižka was a freaking badass. A badass who died of the plague in October of 1424. And asked for his skin to be made into drums as his dying wish so he could continue to lead his men. Yup. You read that right. Skin into drums.
This story took us to the Spanish Synagogue in the Old Town. It’s an odd sight, an Arabic Moorish style building in the building of all this Czech architecture. But it’s well worth looking at, especially inside as it’s beautiful. The Jewish Quarter itself is packed with fascinating synagogues and you can buy a ticket from the Jewish Museum to access several different ones. The Prague Cemetery is probably the most famous landmark in this part of the city and it is worth a visit. But my personal highlight is the Pinkas Synagogue. It’s been turned into a memorial to the nearly 80,000 Jewish victims of the Holocaust from what was Bohemia and Moravia. The walls are covered in their names and there is an audio loop reading them continuously. It is haunting. I can’t explain the impact that this has, it’s something you need to experience for yourself.
Once we were out of the Jewish Quarter we made our way across Charles Bridge. It was crowded, with tourists, market stalls and performers. As any travel blog or guide will tell you, the best time to go is early in the morning or late at night to avoid this. Once you’re over the bridge you’re in the Old Old Town. Now I know that there’s already an Old Town but this part of town is older. Older than Old. It’s dominated by the Castle. Any history nerd would be jumping at the chance to visit Prague Castle. It’s gorgeous, it’s got a cathedral as part of it, it has beautiful views over the whole city and at night it’s lit up by lights that are rumoured to have been donated by the Rolling Stones. Don’t quote me on that.
Birthday in Prague
For my birthday we decided to go classy. We went to a classical music concert up at the Castle. They were playing famous Czech composers so there was a lot of Antonín Dvořák. If classical music is your thing, they have these regularly – you can find tickets here. Then, because we’d had our fill of high culture, we headed to the Sex Machine Museum. Seriously. Check it out. It’s eye-opening. And eye-watering. I’ll just leave this photo here. Make of it what you will.
We finished up my birthday celebrations in my favourite restaurant in Prague, Krčma on Kostečná, near the Old Town Square. It serves traditional Czech food and amazing beer. Lots of meat, potato dumplings and deliciousness. There was lots more beer to follow back at the hostel ready for a nice early start the next day.
Our next destination was the city of Český Krumlov in the south of the Czech Republic. A family friend runs the Penzion Onyx and so we headed there to stay on our way to Vienna. The train journey took us through some gorgeous Czech countryside with this beautiful teeny weeny train station. Once we arrived, our hosts had an incredible evening lined up for us. She’d bought us tickets for the famous rotating opera. It’s a really incredible place, with round outdoor seating surrounded by a stage. The seating rotates as the action moves around the stage. We were watching Carmen and thankfully I’d studied the book at university because neither of our French was really up to scratch to follow it.
Walking home through Český Krumlov after the performance, I saw my first ever bear. Odd first to achieve in the Czech Republic but there you go. Apparently it’s tradition to keep a bear in the moat of a castle and Český Krumlov proudly upholds that. After this slightly bizarre evening, we were ready for the final leg of our interrailing adventure: Vienna. Here I intended to drink my body weight in delicious coffee, eat sachertorte until I was sick and generally roll myself back to the airport. Unfortunately, fate had other plans. But you’ll have to find out what they were in the next blog post. Nothing like a cliffhanger to keep you interested.