Paris in Spring? Non! Prague in Autumn Is The Place To Be
How fantastic is the Charles Bridge on a misty morning? But one of the most beautiful parts of Prague is right under your feet.
Dobry Den, Čau, and Ahoj From Prague!
Greetings from Prague, Czechia, where Brent and I are currently living.
As I’ve mentioned before, one of the first things I do upon arrival in a new country is learn a few words of the local language. Often I don’t need them — because it seems like almost every person under the age of forty in Europe now speaks English — but I like to do it just to show a little respect.
Here in Czechia, the most common ways to greet another person are with “Dobry den,” which means “Good day” and is the most formal greeting. More common and less formal is “Čau,” which is the Czech spelling of the Italian word “Ciao,” and has become very popular for hello and goodbye.
(And not just here. Throughout Europe, two language-specific phrases now seem practically universal: Italy’s “Ciao!” and France’s “Bon appetit!”)
Finally, there is “Ahoj,” which is pronounced Ahoy — for “Hello.”
Yes, like the nautical term.
But Czechia is landlocked, so why use a nautical way to say hello? No one knows for sure, but theories abound.
“Ahoj” could be an acronym for “Ad honorem Jesu,” which translates to, “For the Honor of Jesus.” But Czechia isn’t a particularly religious country — and it wasn’t even in the 1920s when the term seems to have been adopted.
So a more likely explanation is that Czech sailors brought it with them from the German port city of Hamburg, and then it became popularized when canoeing became a big thing among young people on the South Moravian and Bohemian rivers.
But “Ahoj” is an informal greeting, not to be used with elders or superiors, just close friends.
This One Is Just Right
So far in 2021, Brent and I have lived in places ranging in size from a megalopolis of more than fifteen million people — Istanbul, Turkey — to a rural town of 21,000 — Keszthely, Hungary
And while both those places had their pluses, by the time it came for us to leave, I was more than ready to go. Istanbul’s people and energy could be overwhelming. And after six weeks in Keszthely, I was kind of bored out of my skull.
But like Goldilocks and her porridge, our current destination of Prague is just right.
Prague was mostly spared being bombed during World War II, so almost all of the medieval cathedrals, castles, towers, and gates that define this city are still standing in pristine condition. The city is filled with gorgeous architecture: Charles Bridge, Prague Castle, the Church of Our Lady before Týn — and, incidentally, how is that last one for a name?
But Prague is also “just right” because of the city’s modest scale. Everything is very walkable, with trams or the Metro whisking you anywhere else you want to go.
Better still, there are no looming skyscrapers, like in American cities — monuments that insist on the county’s current greatness. And unlike Vienna and Budapest, there are fewer glorious monuments from past greatness, attempts to remind visitors — and, perhaps, reassure themselves — that they were once seats of great power.
Czechs are instead content with more obscure — and more interesting — art, like the famous giant sculpted babies crawling up the side of Žižkov Television Tower. They also celebrate peace and love with the Lennon Wall, and honor Franz Kafka with a giant, rotating silvery sculpture of his head.
Forget Paris in Spring — It’s All About Prague in Fall!
One part of Keszthely, Hungary, I did like? All the greenery. Moving on to a big city, I was worried I was going to miss the changing colors of the fall leaves which had started right before we left.
[Editor’s note from Brent: He was worried he wouldn’t be able to take fifteen zillion pictures of the fall leaves.]
[Editor’s note from Michael: Pbbbttttt!]
Turns out Prague has plenty of greenery of its own. In fact, I think October might be the best time to visit this incredible city.
For starters, the hordes of tourists that descend in summer — eight million a year — are largely gone. Plus, the autumn weather is cool and sunny.
And yes, the spectacular colors of fall are everywhere you turn. The city is simply filled with gorgeous parks — including Gröbovka Park, a fantastic one near our apartment that inexplicably contains a vast working vineyard.
Probably the most spectacular are a series of parks that cover Petřín Hill, which overlooks Prague and the Vltava River.
It isn’t only the parks that look as if they’ve dressed for a grand autumn festival. Prague is also filled with fantastic cemeteries, including Olšany Cemetery, the Old and New Jewish Cemeteries, and Vinohrady Cemetery.
Walking through the stone gate of Olšany Cemetery was probably the closest I’ll ever come to stepping into Narnia.
It’s as much a stroll through a forest as a collection of graves. Olšany is massive — it’s actually twelve different cemeteries! — but much of it lays under a thick cover of trees, with leaf-strewn footpaths winding between the rows of headstones.
Standing in the middle of Olšany, it’s hard to remember a bustling city lay just outside those stone walls — and not on the other side of some vast space of stars and magic, only crossed by an enchanted wardrobe.
Speaking of Magical Places…
Charles Bridge, which crosses the Vltava River, is considered one of Prague’s “must-see” attractions — and its reputation is well-deserved. Construction began in 1357, replacing a previous bridge that had been damaged in a flood. It’s 516 meters (or 1,693 feet) of beautiful stone arches and includes three guard towers.
But those are just facts. Here’s an opinion: one of the most magical ways to experience the bridge is at sunrise on a fall morning when the temperature nears 0 C/32 F. That’s because, at that temperature, a misty fog forms, wafting up from the river then rolling over the bridge, around the towers, and onto the other side of the river.
I hadn’t yet purchased a winter coat when I first started visiting the bridge at sunrise, and I can honestly say my whole body had gone numb at the end of that first morning of trying to capture that perfect shot.
But it was totally worth it!
One of the Best Sights in Prague is Right Under Your Feet
Prague is full of so many wonderful things to see that it’s easy to miss one of the most interesting of all.
Especially when it’s right under your feet.
Brent and I had been considering renting bikes for our month here.
Then I noticed the center of the city is mostly paved with cobblestones — which explains why the only bicyclists you see are the poor food delivery guys. (And also why Prague is not considered a very friendly city for folks in wheelchairs or other assistive devices. A female friend has also said she hates wearing high heels to the city center.)
But it wasn’t until I noticed some sidewalk work going on in our neighborhood that I really took note of the cobblestoned streets and sidewalks, and started to wonder about them.
It turns out Prague takes its cobblestones very seriously.
For starters, there are all kinds of different designs around the city, from simple checkerboard patterns, to intricate geometric patterns of interlocking circles, to elaborate swirls to repeating crosses.
Most patterns are created with grey and ivory stones that only come from the Jesenik region of Czechia, famous for its quarries. Each design is approved by the heritage board before the laborious task of installing the stones begins.
The work is done entirely by hand, a process we’ve seen up close and personal since it’s happening all around our hotel.
First, a bed of sand is laid down, then each cube is pounded into place. Finally, more sand is poured over the cobblestones to fill in the gaps. It’s laborious, backbreaking work. But the result is beautiful.
Unfortunately, at least some of the cobblestones in one part of town are made of headstones taken from one of Prague’s Jewish cemeteries. (Prague has a rich Jewish history, most of which ended in tragedy. More on that in a future newsletter.)
The local authorities have worked with the Jewish community here in Prague, and whenever a cobblestone is identified as having come from a Jewish grave, it is replaced with a new stone, and the old one is turned over to the Jewish community.
Why all the cobblestones? It’s partly aesthetic, but they are also remarkably durable — much more so than concrete or asphalt. A street or sidewalk can last a century or more. But even then, it isn’t the cobblestones themselves that fail — they last for centuries — it’s the underlying base of sand, which slowly shifts over time making the sidewalks difficult to walk on.
And even harder to bike!
What media has Brent been consuming lately?
Most people seemed to love Susanna Clarke’s 2005 novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, but I found it to be a snooze-fest — one of those fantasy novels that are allowed to be “important” and considered “serious literature” because there are vast swaths of text where nothing happens.
Which is why I was surprised how much I absolutely loved Clarke’s latest book, Piranesi.
It’s the story of a seemingly simple man, Piranesi, who is tasked with maintaining “the House” — a vast labyrinth of ancient caverns and ruins, some of which are sometimes flooded by the incoming tide. Piranesi is regularly visited by his superior, The Other, as they both work to discover A Great and Secret Knowledge hidden somewhere within the labyrinth.
But as Piranesi tries to uncover the secret of the labyrinth, he’s also slowly discovering the secret of his own past, which he doesn’t quite remember.
Unlike a lot of “literary” fantasy, this book works on both a metaphorical level but also on a simple “plot” one. (I’m currently reading Umberto Eco’s The Island of the Day Before, which has a very similar premise, but I’m finding it slow-going and ridiculously heavy-handed.)
With Piranesi, come for the carefully constructed plot with great twists and turns, and a wonderful — and subtly “meta” — conclusion. And stay for the richly satisfying central metaphor!
What You May Have Missed
Here are some our recent articles:
The World is Closely Watching America’s Debate Over “Pregnant People” We weighed in on how the rest of the world sees “woke-ism” in America as being a victim of its own excess — and we found ourselves heavily attacked in some quarters of the internet. But we stand by our take. Hectoring and shaming others might feel good on Twitter, but it's a sure way to alienate important allies and is a bad strategy for change.
Swimming in the (Second) Largest Thermal Lake in the World It’s a lake. No, it’s a hot spring. It’s a lake AND a hot spring! I wrote about our fascinating day-trip to a place of real wonder.
Is It Okay to Travel to Homophobic Countries? I took on another complicated topic — and found myself under heavy attack in certain quarters of the internet as well. But we stand by our counterintuitive take here too: in many cases, the best thing you can do to help LGBTQ people in homophobic places is to travel to their countries.
Goodbye until our next hello!
Michael (and Brent)