The end of midterm exams called for escape. After studying and writing essays for three straight days, I joyfully fled the country. My friend Ande and I flew to Prague Wednesday morning eager for Pilsner beer and exploration. Our hostel, situated at the end of Charles Bridge in the Malá Strana neighborhood, was fantastic. We were greeted with enthusiastic advice and free espresso. We strolled through small streets bordered by lovely old buildings topped with gold stars and copper roofs. A quick snack turned into a late lunch at a nearby cafe. Ande bought the most exquisite hazelnut hot chocolate: thick, melted dark chocolate with cream and garnished with chopped hazelnuts. Then we climbed the tall hill to Prague Castle and gazed at the red-roofed city. The complex housed a cathedral and government buildings surrounded by patios. I felt so relaxed and happy to be traveling again. Though I’d brought guidebooks and plenty of Internet research, I took pleasure in doing things leisurely and spontaneously. We had an easy evening at two casual, smoke-filled bars. (Yes, Prague bars still allow smoking inside.) Our favorite was a cavern-like jazz bar that was covered with graffiti and exuded a cool Czech vibe.
The next morning we popped over to Bohemia Bagel, where I had a sausage, egg, and cheese bagel sandwich to die for (and I have high standards). Who would have thought the best bagel sandwich in the world would be found in a small Prague cafe? We contemplated the guidebook over coffee, eventually heading over to the nearby John Lennon Wall. In the late 1980s, Czech youth oppressed by the Communist regime found Lennon’s messages of peace inspiring. They graffitied an entire wall with pictures, messages, and grievances. The secret police would whitewash the wall only to find it covered anew. Now the Lennon wall is imbued with decades of art and writing: Beatles lyrics, signatures, philosophical quotes, drawings, and shout outs layer each other colorfully. Ande and I loved what it stood for and the fact that as travelers we could join in the wall’s community (I added a Jack Kerouac quote). It felt like scrawling a piece of history.
Nearby, hundreds of padlocks adorned a small bridge over a river. Couples here and in many other places sign their names on a lock, clasp it to the bridge, and throw the key into the water. The keys of countless spouses and young lovers must carpet the river floor. Then Ande and I walked to the funicular, which carried us up to the Petřín Lookout Tower, a small version of the Eiffel Tower jutting from a hill. After trekking up 299 stairs (which reminded me of arduously climbing up the stairs of the actual Eiffel Tower years ago), we reached the top to find Prague laid out like a postcard before us.
Then we walked and walked some more. The statue memorial to the victims of the Communist regime was striking and poignant. Next I wanted to see the Dancing House designed by Frank Gehry and Croatian-Czech architect Vlado Milunić. It’s nicknamed “Fred and Ginger” for the upright form of Fred Astaire and the fluid shape of Ginger Rogers. I never thought of likening a building to dancers but it’s a fitting comparison for many of Gehry’s designs, which flow and twirl. After, we needed the sustenance of some hot mulled wine and more bagel sandwiches (no, you can never have too many bagels) at a pretty little cafe. I can highly recommend cream cheese in the Czech Republic; it’s impossibly fresh and light. Ande and I ambled past the ornate Prague Clock Tower, the Old Town Square, and the Jewish Quarter. For dinner that night we met up with the two Australian sisters in our hostel room for Czech cuisine. The meal was delicious and served in gigantic portions. I ordered a Pilsner and goulash – tender pieces of beef half submerged in a rich, heavy sauce with potato pancakes and spongy bread dumplings to sop it up. Full and content, we breathed in the brisk night air on the walk back.
The next morning we overslept and almost missed our bus to Berlin. 7:30 am found us scrambling for passports and clothes and running out the door with our bags after waking up half the hostel. Half asleep and discombobulated upon arriving in Berlin a few hours later, we took the metro from the station to the hostel in the neighborhood of Mitte. Soon after our meal of yummy, crepe-like pancakes my friend Kate arrived from Madrid. We checked out the neighborhood then settled into a welcoming cafe to catch up while we waited for two other friends to get in from Copenhagen. Later, the five of us settled on cheap and delicious kebabs for a quick dinner. Seriously, kebab places are everywhere in Berlin. They are the pizza of Europe. I’m already converted to this new late night snack, but I’m afraid they’ll be harder to come by in Boston. Our pub crawl on Friday night included a huge group of people from all over Europe. The first bar we went to had relics of East Berlin covering the walls: signs, flags, and photos offered an array of history. The other two bars were also lively and fun, and we socialized with Germans, Austrians, Brits, and Italians.
The next morning we did a long walking tour of Berlin. Despite the cold and wind, it was a great way to hit all the sights: Museum Island, Alexanderplatz square, the site of Hitler’s chancellery, remains of the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie (one of the places which marked entrance to the U.S. sector of Berlin from the Soviet), the Brandenburg Gate, and a few memorials. Berlin is not the most aesthetically appealing city, especially since so much of it was leveled during the war and rebuilt in a grim style, but it was interesting to see a place so architecturally modern, utilitarian, and austere. Halfway through the tour we pit stopped for curry worst, a German specialty involving sausage drenched in homemade ketchup and curry powder and served with fries. I could almost feel my arteries protesting, but it was very tasty. After the tour we sought refuge from the weather in a pub and sampled more delectable German beer.
That night we ate marvelous German food at a charming little restaurant. I had tender rumpsteak with roasted, herbed potatoes and carrots moist with a savory sauce. I ate almost all of this appetizing, curious tasting paste before I realized it was actually straight tomato butter. Oh well, delicious.
I visited the Mitte flea market alone on Sunday morning while my friends slept. It seemed to go on forever. There were books, purses, records, jewelry, antiques, ’80s sweaters, china, handmade art, and more. I snacked on a spinach and cheese bun and successfully purchased in German an old book. German is such a cool language; I wanted to sound like I knew it. (The trick is to pretend you know what the vendor is saying and wait for him or her to gesture the number of euros.) A market is just so fitting for a bright Sunday morning, and somehow, I felt at home. Once the others were awake and ready we grabbed some falafel on the go before the Jewish Museum. It was an open, modern space and historically compelling, but after a few hours the five days of travel had worn us down a bit. It was time for my third bagel sandwich of the trip before hopping on a bus to the airport.
Being so tired after only five days made me wonder how people backpack for months on end. But what a rewarding challenge it is. I love it to death – bagels, beer, and all.