- Days 1-7: Prague, Czech Republic (and day trip to Kutna Hora)
RTW Trip 2014: Peru→ Chile → Argentina → Antarctica → Argentina → Uruguay → Argentina→ Chile→ England → Morocco → Spain → France → Belgium → Netherlands → Germany → Czech Republic → Austria → Hungary → Croatia → Italy → Thailand → United States → Thailand → Laos → Vietnam → Cambodia → Australia → Taiwan
Dates: June 24-30, 2014
As soon as we left Germany for the Czech Republic, we could tell we were stepping out of Western Europe and into a part of Europe that had been under Soviet influence for much of the 20th century. I’ve never been to Russia and haven’t studied Communism or the Iron Curtain since high school, but my experience in the Czech Republic- from the trains and subways to the clothing people wore- matched my expectations of what a former Communist country might be like. It felt like being in 1992- the fashion looked a bit outdated compared to what we saw in other European countries, and subway trains and railway trains were generally older and a bit more rickety than others we’ve seen. This is not meant as a criticism or a complaint at all, just an observation that while the Czech Republic has made huge strides in the past 25 years since the fall of Communism in 1989 (the international community considers the Czech Republic a fully developed nation), you can still see the mark the 40 year period of Soviet control had on the people and the culture.
Our time in this country was spent primarily in Prague, with the exception of one day trip to Kutna Hora about an hour away. While the hints of post-communism were generally easy to spot, Prague lacks the stereotypical brutalism of the architecture one might expect in a formerly Soviet-controlled country. The city managed to escape heavy bombing during WWII so unlike many European capitals, there was little to rebuild, and therefore little opportunity for the Soviet liberators to create gray boxy buildings all over the city.
What this means is that everyone gets to enjoy the Prague of the city’s glory days- beautiful old buildings and cathedrals, a 600 year old clock that still works, and one of the most charming medieval squares we’ve seen in Europe. This charm, as well as the city’s long and fascinating history, has made Prague one of the top tourist destinations in the world (even more popular than Sydney, Australia, for example).
For Tim in particular, though, this was more than just another touristy city on our route through Europe. His family’s heritage is actually Czech, and his great-grandfather Jake left the country at the age of 9 with his parents to move to the United States. Tim even had the opportunity while we were there to learn about his last name in greater depth. For example, he learned that Kubichek and Kubichka are actually the same surname in the Czech republic- one is masculine and one is feminine. When Jake came through Ellis island he was given the surname Kubichka in the US, but when his grandfather Milt was born he was given a surname of Kubichek. Interestingly, Tim’s aunt let him know that Milt had sisters with the last name Kubichka, so both of these names in the US have a similar root.
As we learned more about the history of this nation, Tim admittedly felt grateful that his family was able to migrate to the US before some of the horrors of the 20th century came to be- notably WWII and the subsequent Soviet occupation. Long before this, however, the Czech people have been dominated by other empires- in fact, very rarely in their history have they been their own fully free and independent nation. The first unification of the Czech people was in the 10th century thanks to King Wenceslas- a duke who brought the people together and remains a beloved symbol of unity today. It was not too long though before the people became part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, which they remained a part of for several hundred years.
Fast forward to the 20th century and WWII- during this time Czechoslovakia (as it was called at that time) was occupied by the Nazis, and like much of Europe, the nation lost a lot of people in the war and in the concentration camps. They were “liberated” at the end of the war by the Soviet Army, or the Red Army, but the Soviets did not leave until 1989. The Soviets called their 40ish year reign a liberation, but to the Czech people, like much of Central/Eastern Europe, it was really just substituting one dictatorship regime for another.
During this time between WWII and 1989, Communism was the way of life, first under Stalin, who was a cruel dictator, and then under Gorbachev, who has come to be associated with “happy communism” in this region. In general though, while everyone was basically equal, the reality is that they were all equally poor. People had to wait in long lines for food, especially meat, as the supply was very low. People could not travel oustide of other communist nations easily at all. Hotels had two prices- one for citizens of the Warsaw pact countries (communist countries of Europe), and another, much more expensive price, for everyone else. Even normal toilet paper was rare, and exotic fruits like oranges and bananas were a treat only available at Christmas. Locals would even greet foreign travelers at the train station in hopes of being able to host someone in their home and thereby make some extra cash, something Tim and I noticed is still the case today.
Many people were not satisfied with the communist regime and Soviet occupation, and in 1969 a college student named Jan Palach set himself on fire on the steps of the National Museum in protest of the current state. He died a few days later in a hospital, but the people memorialized the anniversary of his rebellion each year after that, and with each year more and more people would come out against communism and Soviet occupation. The 20th anniversary of this one man’s bold act marked the beginning of the overthrow of communism- by that point the movement was too strong and the Soviet empire was beginning to collapse elsewhere. They called this time the Velvet Revolution, and impressively the communist regime was overthrown with barely any violence.
Now the Czech Republic is a democracy, but people are still hesitant to fully embrace it. Some of the older generation have nostalgia for the good old days when the state provided everything and everyone was equal even if things were not ideal. Learning this perspective has been truly fascinating as it is such a contrast to what we learned in school about communism being “bad”. It’s certainly not all hood, but it’s not as easy as saying communism is bad and democracy is good- with democracy, we heard that people often feel they work much harder and have less money. Interesting.
Our first day in Prague was rainy, so we headed indoors to tour the Kafka museum. Kafka was a Czech author who wrote in German in the early 1900s. He is most famous for “The Metamorphosis” but also wrote “The Castle”, “The Trial”, and some unsettling short stories such as “In the Penal Colony” which is about a torture device that punishes people by writing across their bodies until they die. His works tend to focus on being trapped inside a beaureucratic hell and on the sacrifices and misery of the artist (he always felt like his need to write was a burden that conflicted with his professional life as a lawyer). I studied Kafka extensively in college and he is one of my favorite authors and I find his works and the treatment of the themes to be some of the most interesting literature of the 20th century. This being the case, I really enjoyed this museum, and had fun teaching Tim a little of what I knew since being an economics and finance major, he had never read his works in school.
That afternoon we had the great fortune of being able to meet up with several friends we met during our travels- two Canadian girls we met in Berlin a week prior, and an Australian named Melanie we met hiking in Patagonia back in February. We had a really fun evening at an absinthe bar and a few local pubs. If you ever go to the Czech Republic, Kozul beer is phenomenol and you should drink many of them, as a half liter is only about $2 in the pubs.
The next day we all met up again to go on a free walking tour. We were not as impressed with this tour as we were with some of the other tours we have been on, but we still learned a lot of interesting and notable facts.
The Old Town Square in the center of town has been a market in the city since the 11th century. Its town hall was erected in the 14th century as was the grand cathedral in the square, the Tyn Church.
In the center of the square is a memorial to a man named Jan Hus, another symbol of Czech freedom. In 1370 he defied Catholic corruption and the Hapsburg oppressors from Austria and rallied the people to fight for independence. Unfortunately for the Czech people, the Hapsburgs overtook them again 200 years later and in 1621, 27 people were beheaded in the Old Town Square for rebelling against the Catholic Hapsburgs (likely just for being Protestant instead of Catholic). Today there are 27 white crosses painted on the ground in front of the town hall as a memorial to those who were beheaded that day.
One of the main sites in the square is the astronomical clock, called such because it keeps not only normal time, but tracks the rotation of the sun and the moon around the earth. Except for that one geocentric issue, the clock still works today even though it was first built in the 1400s. Aside from being just interesting as is, it is particularly impressive to think about the complex mechanics that went into creating such a clock in its time.
The next day, a Friday, was the day we headed out to Kutna Hora, a small town an hour away by rail. I refer to this day as “plague day” as the two sites we saw there had to do with the plague. One was a plague column, which is simply a memorial to the plague victims and a thank you to the Virgin Mary for saving them from it. The second, much more interesting, is the ossuary of the 17th century Church of All Saints. This small chapel has the remains of more than 40,000 bodeis (many victims of the plague) within its ossuary, or bone chapel. The skeletal remains have been incorporated into the design of the chapel. Notably, there are four skeletan pyramids in the corners, a few skeletan towers, a magnificant chandelier that has at least one of every bone in the human body, and, my personal favorite, a coat of arms sheild made of bones with a cute bone bird pecking at the eye socket of a skull on the right hand side of it. This was a very interesting site to visit, and very unique. My initial thought was that this was a grim and morbid celebration of death, but we learned that it is actually a celebration of the belief that when we die we are all equal before God.
We spent the weekend doing absolutely nothing. We barely even left our apartment, preferring instead to sleep in, watch movies, and lounge around reading. It was a wonderfully relaxing time.
Our last day in Prague, a Monday, we did go out and explore the city one last time. This time we took a free tour of the castle district. It included walking along the Charles bridge, the oldest in the city, and learning about the various statues along it, as well as the public areas of the castle district itself. The Prague castle is allegedly the largest castle complex in the world, but I have to admit I was not very impressed, at least from the outside. It is mostly like a large administrative park with lots of palace-esque buildings. The cathedral was quite interesting to go into, though. Saint Vitrus Cathedral has some magnificant art nouveau stained glass windows, but in order to finance them, they had to get sponsorships from banks and insurance companies and actually have their brand included in the stained glass. My favorite was the one for the life insurance policy that is stained glass of several scenes of how people could die. Not a bad advertisement for life insurance!
All in all, our time in Prague was really great. Seeing friends we have met in other places, learning about recent history and seeing the charm of the old town (not to mention having a weekend of pure relaxation) were all wonderful. It certainly piqued our interest in communism and politics in this region of the world, something we are excited to dive into and learn even more about in the coming weeks as we contine traveling through eastern Europe!