Prague, Czech Republic
Our fourth day in Prague was mostly taken up by a trip to the famous castle (see my post on it here), but after that was when things started to get really interesting. While we normally never pay to enter churches, on a whim - and a Lonely Planet recommendation - we spent 70 korunas each (around €2.60) to visit the church of Saint Nicolas.
As soon as we stepped inside, I knew that we had found something special. Everything was gold and marble, gleaming in the early afternoon light. Each surface and statue screamed 'baroque'.
The ceiling was touted as one of the main attractions in the church, as it is the largest fresco in Europe. While I did find the fresco beautiful and masterfully painted, it didn't stand out to me from other church frescoes.
I actually preferred the ceiling fresco inside the dome. When you stood and looked up at it, the view could have been a piece of art in itself, with the statues looking around and light shining inside.
Of the statues (and there were plenty!), one of my favourites was a larger-than-life saintly man with a great beard who was smiting down a semi-aquatic looking creature - probably a demon or other sinner. Another stand-out was a lady patting what looked like a hybrid of an alpaca and a lion, and a guy holding onto a pair of manacles threateningly. I sat and contemplated the church for a little while, finally deciding that it was my all time favourite church ever, and I would have paid much more than the prescribed entrance fee to see it. Mozart may have enjoyed it too, as he had a go on the organ here in 1787.
Reluctantly, I left the church to nourish myself with luncheon. The difficult to pronounce Cukrkávalimonáda was packed full of others with the same idea, but the waitress found us a table by sitting us next to a couple of Californians. They recommended the sandwiches and the 'cocktails', which they explained were non-alcoholic and more like freshly squeezed juices. We shared our travel plans, and as we ordered they shot off to Latvia. Following their advice, I asked for the mediterannean open faced sandwich and citrus cocktail. While we ate our delicious lunch, we talked about how odd it was for such a modern café to be set in a building with original Renaissance ceiling beams.
Wanting to retire to the campsite early for a bit of relaxation, we took in one more sight: the Valdstejnsky Palace gardens. One side was contained by a vertical wall of concrete that was shaped to look like the interior of a cave. If you looked closely enough, you could see animals and evil faces in the rock of this 'grotto'. The strange part done with, the rest of the gardens were pleasant to stroll through. Many bronze statues were dotted throughout (replacements, as the originals had been carted off by mischievous Swedes) among fountains and hedges.
The pond was home to gigantic carp (probably nearly a meter in length), and little birds that looked very similar to New Zealand native pukekos.
The tram back to the campsite terminated early and we were stuck in an unfamiliar area of Prague with no idea how to finish our route. Luckily our wide-eyed disbelief garnered the attention of a nice lady who had a strong Glaswegian accent, but who had lived in Prague for seven years. She directed us to the nearest team stop where our time-based ticket could be used on the next passing tram. Our dinner, which was intended to be stress-free, was descended on by a swarm of wasps (a literal swarm literally) and we were forced to quickly cover everything in foil and retreat to the safety of the car. While waiting them out, a drunk Scottish couple stopped for a chat and told Fabienne she sounded like the Queen.
Our fifth and final day in the capital also held transportation issues, as the campsite had run out of tram tickets for purchase. We had to walk down to the nearest metro station in order to buy tickets from the machine there. It was a tad sweltering, but the trek across a bridge provided good views of the Vltava river.
The Church of Saint James looked like a normal church, but upon closer inspection a grisly artefact of its past could be seen: a shrivelled human hand hung up on a wall, which had a bogus story about how the statue of the Virgin Mary pincered it off a thief, but in reality was likely due to the church's connection to the butchers' guild.
The last church was visited not for guilded baroquery or human remains, but for a moving and terrible story. A group of assassin paratroopers fatally wounded the leader of the gestapo, Reinhard Heydrich, in 1942. The explosion hadn't gone as planned, but Heydrich died from sepsis due to shrapnel wounds days later. The paratroopers went into hiding, staying with members of the resistance and eventually in the crypt of the Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius. Under pressure from his mother, the traitor Karel Curda came forward with their whereabouts. A shootout occurred when the gestapo stormed the crypt, and all seven paratroopers inside were killed, either from inflicted wounds or from suicide. Anyone and everyone thought to be in cahoots with them was sentenced to death, including whole families and the church's priests. The frenzied Nazis also entirely wiped out two whole villages to set an example.
It was on a sombre note that we left the city, both from the deeply tragic fate of the Czech resistance and because we were leaving a place we had grown very fond of. I can't say that it's my favourite city, but it's certainly in my top five. The rich historical tapestry coupled with the stunning cityscape makes Prague unmissable, and I'm sure I'll be back one day.