Prague teems with history, cutting-edge culture


    By Stephanie Rhodes and Whitney Evans

    PRAGUE, Czech Republic —  Past a lush countryside and hills blanketed with fog lies a city simultaneously teeming with history and cutting-edge culture.  Just as a forest after a fire is initially deprived of all life but ultimately is primed for new growth, so has Prague successfully moved from being a newly democratic nation to a cultural metropolis in the 20 years since the Czech Republic’s independence.

    Roughly 40 miles north of Prague at Terezin, a Star of David and cross respectively overlook rows of graves spotted with groups of red flowers, where the bodies of 10,000 Nazi victims are buried, with 2,386 of those lying in their original graves.

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    Red roof tops can be seen from the view at the top of Town Hall in Old Town Square in Prague.
    Further along the path is the small fortress, an intended fortress-turned-Gestapo prison.  Originally designed as a fortress, this camp has mainly been used as a prison almost since its inception.

    From June 1940-May 1945 the small fortress was a temporary destination for those headed to more severe death camps. It was also a show camp, used as a decoy to make life at these camps look pleasurable for the Jewish inmates, designed to fool a Red Cross investigative committee into thinking the conditions for the prisoners were better than they really were.

    Although there is some debate about the exact number, thousands of prisoners died while at Terezin.

    A short tour reveals some of the darker aspects of the show camp just beyond an archway bearing the German words “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work Sets You Free”).  Rather than featuring replicas of the original, this tour shows what appear to be original prison cells, reported to have housed dozens of inmates, a “model barbershop” lined with sinks and mirrors and a hospital ward housing hundreds of prisoners during a typhoid outbreak near the mid-1940s.

    A cobblestone pathway leads to a lush, green meadow — seemingly a beautiful respite from the darkness around, this meadow contains the gallows and execution grounds.

    Those interested can also visit the ghetto museum at Terezin where they can view informational video tapes, newspapers from the World War II era and pieces of art created by those who stayed at Terezin.

    Back in the city of Prague, tightly-packed buildings painted different colors herald a city ready for a new day. This city offers myriad cultural attractions for the curious tourist. The cobblestone streets are lined with shops offering some famous Czech crystal or painted eggs, and several gelato shops are available for a sweet snack.

    Many businesses in the Czech Republic do not accept the euro, so a stop to exchange currency for Czech koruna may be prudent to avoid unnecessary frustration.

    Amid various vendors housed on Old Town Square stands a monument of Jan Hus, a 15th-century reformer who was eventually burned at the stake for his criticism of the Catholic Church. Overlooking the monument is the Astronomical Clock. It was originally mounted in 1410 on the south wall of the Old Town City Hall, with additions and restorations occurring periodically in centuries following. As legend has it, the original clockmaker was blinded after finishing his work so he would be prevented from creating anything as beautiful. While this was later proven to be false, the legend adds further charm to the piece.

    Every hour, the appearance of wooden apostles above the clock is heralded by a man dressed as a pageboy playing a horn. Wooden statues on either side of the clock — representing vanity, usury, death and pleasure and entertainment — begin to move as wooden statues of the apostles appear just above the clock.

    In this city of 100 spires, where each view offers a different perspective, the top of the astronomical clock tower boasts a view of the city from Old Town Square. A few dollars and short ride up a glass elevator culminate in a view of the green or red-topped houses, quaint winding roads, notable synagogues, churches and the Prague castle, one of the largest castle complexes in the world.  A tourist telescope at the top of the tower will allow you to look at the colorful city even closer for a small fee.

    In addition to the hotel accommodations and easy access to downtown Prague, Wenceslas Square contains a statue of Good King Wenceslas. A plaque commemorating the deaths of protesters during communist times is also in the square, the most famous being Jan Palach, who set himself on fire in the square as a protest to the communist regime. The Czech National Museum and the Prague State Opera are adjacent to Wenceslas Square.

    Charles Bridge crosses the Vlatava River in Prague. It connects the Old Town side to the Prague Castle and surrounding areas. It is notable for the gothic-style architecture of the towers and 30 statues on the bridge.

    Originally erected in the mid-1300s, this bridge has survived everything from war battles to floods.  Portions of this bridge have been seen in pop culture as well, including Mission Impossible, the Amazing Race and music videos ranging from artists AFI, INXS, Kanye West and Linkin Park.

    Located just off of Old Town Square lies Agharta jazz club where, for roughly $15 — 250 Czech Koruna — one can listen to Czech jazz greats strum, plunk and drum in this unique environment that is literally several feet under the ground. Outside, the buildings in downtown Prague are lit up, creating a fairyland-like ambience.

    During the ride back to the airport the words “you cannot escape reality” are scrawled in graffiti on the wall of a building. Although it is uncertain whether intended by the author, the message stands in stark contrast to the experiences offered by the city, pulling tourists away from this ephemeral city and back down to earth.

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