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Bohemian rhapsody

The first thought that struck D on arrival in Prague was that the city was overrun by Russian-speakers. The Armenian taxi driver who picked D up from the airport and could barely string three English words together; the management company for the apartment D had hastily booked on hotels.com; the students and old ladies exchanging news on the street corners; even excluding the massive Russian tour groups, D heard about as much Russian during his first couple of hours in Prague as he had in Minsk.

D had done about as little prep for the visit as humanly imaginable. His sole criteria when brainstorming ideas for a weekend visit to tack on to his work trip were that it be a city he had yet to explore and that it be close enough to Vienna to enable D’s close friend to join after work on Friday. Prague and Budapest both fit the bill. D opted for the former because it had better flight connections. He booked accommodations the night before heading out to Minsk and trusted that he’d figure out what was worth seeing and doing on arrival.

The second thought, which came quickly on the heels of the first, is that Prague is simply overrun. Even in October – well removed from the height of the summer tourist season – the city’s beautiful historic center was packed to the gills with visitors. The Moldau River (Vltava in Czech) winds lazily through the historic center, making Prague one of Europe’s most picturesque capitals. Meanwhile, Wenceslas Square, Charles Bridge, the Prague Castle, and the Old Town Square have all acquired mythical must-see status, drawing hordes of travelers from all over the world.

On one corner of the Old Town Square, which dates all the way back to the 10th century, stands Prague’s famed astronomical clock. On the first stroke of every hour, the figure of death pulls a rope to start the clock’s chimes. While the bells resonate across the square, two windows open up above the clock and a procession of saints files past. D and his friend happened to arrive at the square a few minutes before the hourly show and found themselves wedged in by the crowd, which was tittering with excitement ahead of the rather underwhelming spectacle.

The Lonely Planet lists Czech beer at #9 on its Top Ten list of things to do in Prague. It’s a small wonder the experience isn’t listed higher – not only because Czech beer is wonderful, and a heavy, frothy mug of beer feels divine after a day of touristing – but also because the Czech Republic consistently tops the world list of per capita beer consumption. According to Kirin, which conducts the annual survey, the Czechs have topped the list for a quarter of a century (one wonders how much tourist consumption contributes to the ranking). At any rate, this was one reason D was glad he had found a traveling companion: after a day of battling the crowds, he and his friend spent the late afternoon with a deck of cards at an open-air, street-facing bar, sampling beers and indulging in the staples of Czech cuisine (pork knuckle…mmm…delicious!).

The following morning, D and his buddy rose early and took the first train out to Kutna Hora, an hour outside the capital, to visit the Sedlec Ossuary – a bone church similar to the one we had visited in Portugal. In addition to garlands of skulls, and a chandelier and coat of arms constructed out of the bones of the church’s deceased parishioners, the most macabre detail was the signature of woodcarver Frantisek Rint, who was so proud of his handiwork that he signed his name in bone on one of the chapel’s walls. Rint added a date – 1870 – also in bone, which underscores the eeriness of the place. 1870 is not that long ago. There are people alive today who knew people who were alive then. That decorating chapels with human remains struck the inhabitants of Kutna Hora as perfectly acceptable not that long ago made D’s skin itch.

Initially, D had thought his brief foray into the Czech Republic would presage a longer trip with S. After spending 24 hours in Prague, he had changed his mind. S is considerably less fond of crowds than D and – the city’s undeniable appeal notwithstanding – Prague seemed like a poor destination for her. Then D spent a couple of hours walking around the city’s Jewish quarter; as soon as he had set foot in the first synagogue, he knew that he would need to return with S someday.

The birthplace of Franz Kafka, the Jewish ghetto of Josefov nestles in the bend of the Moldau, completely surrounded by Prague’s rebuilt Old Town. Much of the ghetto was destroyed well before the Nazis came to power, as the city’s leaders sought to model Prague’s layout on Paris in the years leading up to the First World War. Six synagogues, the old Jewish Town Hall, and a Jewish cemetery remain, representing some of the best-preserved remnants of Jewish history in this part of the world. The sites are grouped together to form the Jewish Museum of Prague. In addition to an impressive number of Jewish artifacts, the museum also does a stellar job of depicting the history of European Jewry. Of all the places in Prague, this one truly is must-see.

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