Home > Germany, Personal > Have You Seen My Golem? Adventures in Prague

Have You Seen My Golem? Adventures in Prague

Flight and Arrival in Prague

Friday morning at four, with the sun still hours away, I arose from the spare mattress Kerre had generously allowed me to use that night so I could get to the airport, and with a brief word of goodbye and the nice present of a bag of peanuts from her, I wandered through the rain to the bus and then took the train to the airport. The Munich airport is fundamentally easier to get around in than most I’ve experienced in the United States. And, at least for flights around Europe, less stressful due to security restrictions feeling less like an insane Kafkaesque dream (although as I will explain later, Kafkaesque would have been apropos for this particular trip). You don’t even need to remove your shoes to get through the metal detector. It is weird to need to take a minibus to the plane from the gate though, but I assume Lufthansa makes it all work out economically. Once aboard the plane, I quickly fell asleep, awakening only as we touched down at Prague airport. The flight attendant had been kind enough to leave my in-flight snack (a pre-packaged waffle-type thing with cinnamon-sugar on it) on the seat next to me, so I munched on that as I took another minibus to the main terminal and walked to the bus stop.

Traveling alone makes me both excited and anxious, but luckily, I learned well since January that you’re never truly traveling alone with a Rick Steves guide in your hand, in this case a chapter from his “Best of Europe” book about Prague. As Rick recommended, I took a bus and train to the area near my hostel, then followed my hostel’s directions to find them. The bus was so crowded that the driver just waved me on without making me buy a ticket, which was nice. I had some Czech crowns from an ATM, but annoyingly, train and bus ticket machines only take coins, a small downside to the relative cheapness of doing things in Prague (It was about 20 crowns to a dollar or 25 to a Euro, but the actual absolute cost for things except in the most touristy or deliberately fancy stores and restaurants was extremely reasonable, especially compared to Munich). I arrived at my hostel, the Little Town Budget Hotel, appropriately in the Little Quarter, on the West bank of the Vlatava River that runs through the center of Prague (and hosts many spectacular bridges). I was too early to check in yet, so I dropped my backpack in their luggage room and decided to take advantage of my early arrival and follow Rick’s advice to beat crowds, heading across the river to the Jewish Quarter, or Josefov as it is officially known now.

The Jewish Quarter

Situated just north and west of the old town, the Jewish Quarter of Prague is justly famous for its history, architecture, and at least until the Nazis came, its inhabitants, from the semi-legendary Rabbi Loew to the “court Jews” of the Maisel family, to Franz Kafka, the brilliant and disturbed author of the Metamorphosis, the Trial, and many others. Like a lot of Prague, there’s a complex mix of happy and sad stories associated with the area. I bought the comprehensive Jewish Museum ticket and went all over. The Pinkas synagogue with tens of thousands of names written on the wall, each a Holocaust victim was a sobering sight, especially the visible difference in some of the faded writing near the ceiling and the fresher names farther down, evidence of the Soviet attempt to erase all the names during their decades of dominance in the area. I managed to get in there before the enormous number of tour groups could ruin the somber atmosphere exuded by the sight of those names. Upstairs, the collection of children’s art made at the Terezin concentration camp, images of family and friends and home drawn by children in the most desperate of circumstances brought back memories of the horrifyingly racist and bigoted children’s drawings I had seen in Nuremberg, and the disturbing contrast in content even with the similarity in form and style.

Outside, the Jewish cemetery, the only site where Jews could bury their dead, seemed crammed with tombstones, 12,000 of them. It is estimated that there are over 100,000 actual bodies in the cemetery since Jewish law forbids moving bodies after burial. There are so many in fact that the ground is actually higher there than in the rest of the Quarter, which was first built on a swamp. The filling in of the swamp and the demolition of all buildings there except the synagogues means that simultaneously the synagogues are several feet lower than the main street. I wandered the rest of the district, contemplating the medieval Czech-Jewish flag which had a hat with a Jewish star on it, had a snack at the Franz Kafka café, and laughed at how the Old-New Synagogue earned its name through a misunderstanding of Hebrew. See, Altnai in Hebrew means “on condition,” referencing the stones used in the synagogue supposedly from the first Temple and to be returned and used for the third Temple when the Messiah arrives, but in German it sounds like alte neu, old-new, hence the confusion, especially amusing since it’s the oldest synagogue in Europe, from 1270. Less funny was the long history of anti-Semitism in Prague, ranging from accusations that Jews poison wells to that they used Christian baby blood to make bread. When I had seen pretty much everything possible and the crowds were starting to annoy me, I made my way back to the hostel.

Fatigued Evening

I was feeling very tired from lack of sleep and running around all day, so I was grateful to be able to check-in to the hostel and relax for a little bit. I didn’t want to miss out on too much though so I soon left again, heading across the river to look at possible restaurants based on what Rick recommended. I enjoyed the evening air before settling on a very local Czech restaurant, for a cheap and delicious fish dinner. I could feel myself struggling to stay awake afterward, but eventually made it to the hostel where I prepared to go to bed early. First though I met Sam, an American girl who had just finished studying in Spain and was traveling around Europe. We made plans to get up early and go to the castle and I went to sleep looking forward to the next day.

Saturday at the Castle

Well as it turned out, Sam had stayed up so late that she was unable to summon the energy to get up for the castle so we made plans to meet back at the hostel in the afternoon and I went on my own. The castle was up a hill and I wanted to get there quickly so I decided to take one of the trams that run throughout the city. I couldn’t figure out where to buy a ticket so I decided to risk it and ride without paying. No one said anything except during one ride during the day when I was stopped mere seconds from where I had to get off. I explained that I had to leave right away and the undercover tram guard let me off without an issue. At the castle (which really encompasses an enormous number of cathedrals, churches, palaces and other buildings) I bought a ticket and an audio guide. The audio guide was good if almost too exhaustive in detail but I really got it because with that purchase I could walk straight into St. Vitus’ Cathedral without waiting in the already enormous line of mainly Russian and Japanese tour groups. I’m glad I did as it gave me a chance to appreciate the cathedral and its artwork more thoroughly.  Walking through the other churches, the old palace and others brought up some fascinating Czech stories and legends. Defenestration by law, that is, throwing someone, usually an official, through a window if you don’t approve of him, was not a totally uncommon occurrence. This story also highlighted the difference between my official Czech audio guide and Rick Steves. According to the audio guide, several Protestants threw two Catholic governors and their secretary through a high window but all three survived because they hit a slope where the ground was softer than normal. According to Rick Steves and other, less official guides, it’s because they hit a giant pile of manure that they lived. What I wondered but no one knew was if they put the pile outside their window for just that reason.

I also enjoyed the story of St. John of Nepomuk, who was famous for never betraying secrets from the confessional to the king despite pressure. When his body was exhumed centuries after burial his tongue people discovered his tongue, miraculously preserved in his skull, and soon after he was made a saint. But what actually happened according to later scientific analysis is that the lump believed to have been his tongue was actually the remains of his brain, not that it really mattered by then. Of course considering that many Czech people think there’s a connection between the terrible 2002 floods and the cracking a few weeks earlier of the enormous cathedral bell “Zikmund.”

Of course my favorite Prague story is the legend of the Golem. It surprised me how few of the other visitors I met in Prague knew anything about it. I am giving it its own section should a reader wish to gloss over or skip past it.

The Legend of the Golem

While the legend has been told in many versions, the most basic is that in the 16th century, to protect the Jews in the ghetto, Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel (a real person although the legend attached to him long after he died) created a Golem, an artificial giant man molded from river clay and brought to life by, variously, the Hebrew word emet (truth), the real name of God, or some complicated Kabbalistic ritual, all usually agree the word or word was carved into the Golem or written on paper placed in the creature’s head. The Golem did his work well but one Saturday the rabbi forgot to power down the Golem or otherwise give him the required day of rest. The Golem rampaged through the ghetto until the rabbi could stop him by taking out the words or erasing a letter turning emet into met (death). As he was called away from prayer at the New-Old Synagogue, that prayer (the Shema) is recited twice now. The Golem’s body was put into the attic of the synagogue or another building in the ghetto and supposedly remains there to this day. During the Nazi occupation, there was a story that a soldier was sent to find the Golem up in the attic but that he never returned.

The modern Czech Take According to a Children’s Book

In one of the many gift shops I saw a children’s book about the Golem, translated into many different languages, and took the English version down to look at. According to this book, the Rabbi made the Golem after he too “suffered the hardships of the Jewish people,” Once the Golem was born, the creature was set to tasks like getting water and wood, acting like the brooms in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice flooding the town and uprooting whole trees. I suppose I can forgive leaving out the anti-Semitism in a children’s book, but to not mention its role as a protector at all seems misleading. But my favorite quote follows: “And when his work was finished he went to a pub.” Yes the Golem, who even in these illustrations has no mouth, was so beat from tearing up forests and wells that he went for a drink. And the Rabbi only ends the Golem’s existence when a Spanish mercenary asks for an army of Golems to fight wars. Entertaining, though as these pictures show. The angelic inspiration is particularly succinct.

From Castle to Monastery and Down to the City

I eventually finished up seeing everything I wanted to at the castle and decided to walk up the hill farther to the Strahov Monastery. Along the way I saw people running a marathon. They were wearing gorilla masks. Apparently it was a run to raise money for gorilla rescue efforts in honor of a new gorilla born in the Prague zoo, but it still disoriented me for a moment, especially the ones in tutus. I finished walking to the monastery where I got a chance to see their library, full of illuminated texts, wonderful paintings across the ceiling and bizarre preserved animals from centuries ago in their cabinet of curiosities. In a thoughtful mood I went across the small courtyard outside the library to the brewery/restaurant where I tried the 800-year-old recipe of beer and tried the beer-flavored cheese (on toast with onion and garlic, not good date food) Rick recommended with it, an excellent pick-me-up.

I decided to walk off the cheese and beer to get down to the hostel, but chose to not consult a map and just follow my instincts. For those unaware, I have terrible directional instincts, especially when it is hot and sunny and I have had beer and cheese. I wandered through many beautiful gardens, enjoyed the view from high on the hill and gradually figured out where I was once I arrived at the bottom, reaching the hostel about seven hours after I had left.

Pub Crawl? Czech!

Sam was up and awake and interested in the pub crawl I had mentioned as a possibility for the night. We decided to get dinner near the meeting point and then go for it. We ended up at Orange Moon, a Thai place, because I wasn’t really in the mood for the often quite heavy Czech cuisine and Sam was also happy to try it. The food was quite good and it was nice to get to know Sam a bit and hear about studying in Spain from her. We then walked over to the, honestly, “Pub Crawl Bar” where we paid for the wristbands that would get us a welcome drink and no cover charge at every place and an hour of free drinking (beer, wine, absinthe and vodka) at this bar. Alas they were out of T-shirts but on the bright side they charged us less because of that lack. We got drinks and went about meeting people. We sat with a group of what turned out to be German high-school students (and one Venezuelan doing an exchange) who were all from a small village outside Düsseldorf and had spontaneously decided to visit Prague for the weekend despite the twelve-hour train and bus journey. It was interesting to hear their views on Bavaria (they think it’s weird and not really German) and how strangely their high-school experience did and did not match up with the average American student. We soon left the bar and began our crawling. I introduced one of the German girls to tequila (although the bartender used cinnamon and orange slices rather than salt and lime or lemon, which was odd), and met a bunch of cool people I will never see again, including strange species like two anti-French Québécois girls. I also had a bizarre talk with Christine, one of the German girls about her favorite website, sheeppoopaper.com, a company that makes paper out of, In case you couldn’t tell, ovine leavings. The world is a weird and wonderful place.

Sam and I hung out with a couple of English girls, Amy and Rachel, who both attend Canterbury University and had been studying in France before doing some traveling before going back to England. They had actually been on the pub crawl a few days earlier before going to Vienna but had such a terrible day that they had turned right back around to Prague. I discussed Rachel’s major, history with her, explaining when she expressed surprised I knew much about Canterbury that I had read the Canterbury Tales and as those pilgrims never made it (Chaucer died before finishing) I wanted to know what the big deal about the place was. Another funny moment was when they wanted amaretto and Cokes and as I was closest to the bar I placed the orders. The bartender said they didn’t have any but they had Malibu Rum. Rather than ask what they would prefer I just gave them that and they never noticed, Rachel actually said her amaretto tasted better than normal.

At one bar we went to, there was a platform for dancing. Several people from Nebraska danced on them, and one girl yelled out “I need to find a guy to make out with.” Suddenly there were lots of guys around her, funny how that worked. Actually there was a lot of that kind of thing going on, rather reminiscent of nights out in Munich I think.

The last place we went to was not a bar but a club, five-stories high, each floor a different kind of music, “Radio,” “Chill,” “Black Music (really).” “Oldies (playing La Bamba of all things),” and “Dance.” By then both Sam and I were quite fatigued so we didn’t stay long, heading back to the hostel (and avoiding scary Prague people) around three.

Communist Spies and a Free Tour

The next morning I headed off to St. Nicholas’ Church right across the courtyard, exploring the church and also its nearby bell tower, where I climbed over 200 stairs and at the top learned about how the bell tower was used in the communist era to spy on the many embassies nearby. I also got another commemorative coin, a fun, cheap memento of traveling I find, although I prefer the smashed penny ones, the big gold ones are nice too. When I returned, I ran into Sarah, A Canadian girl from Vancouver who had been in the hostel room Friday but elsewhere Saturday and now returned. She, Sam, and I decided it would be fun to do a free walking tour (just tips) of Prague. First we went into the Old Town for lunch at this place called the Mill, very Czech, rude waiter included but not bad food. Then we went to the Old Town Square where we and fifteen or so other tourists were led for three hours around the city by a very funny, obviously practiced English tour guide named Ruth. I found out alter she had been teaching English in Prague on an EU program before the program’s money ran out and she liked Prague so much she decided to stay and do the tours. Her obvious and infectious enthusiasm for the city made the tour, covering the old and new town, the Jewish quarter and all along the riverside a really worthwhile experience. It didn’t hurt that she had a penchant for bad puns either. Telling the defenestration story and how the Catholic governors survived she said that the Czechs bounced, while after a rapid rundown of local history she called us all Czech-sperts. She even referenced the television show Friends by saying that the natural history museum would really only be interesting to Ross Geller. She talked about the Spanish synagogue and how those who escaped the Spanish Inquisition built it, and later on I asked her if many people shout out Monty Python quotes at that point. She said no but she might have to add them herself, so I felt like I contributed.

Walking around the old city brought out a touch of the nerd in me as it reminded me rather strongly of a computer game I used to play, which in part took place in medieval Prague. Of course there were differences, like the Judith Bridge in the game had long since been washed away, the streets were clean, and of course I was not a crusader recently turned into a vampire, but the similarities were far more striking than the differences. The tour ended on the banks of the Vlatava, well worth the tip I thought, and a great way to spend the afternoon.

Final Wandering and Dinner with the Girls

Sam and Sarah wanted to see about getting tickets for an opera, so we retraced much of the route we had just taken, albeit with a stop for ice cream at “Cream and Dream” along the way, to see about it. I was intrigued and disappointed that after I was gone there was to be an opera based on the stories of Baron von Munchausen, who was an 18th century German nobleman noted for his tall-tales that later became legends ascribed to him like traveling by balloon to the moon or escaping from a swamp by pulling on his own hair. We walked slowly back to the hostel, enjoying the sunset and the many people bedecked in Czech paint in flags wandering the street. The world championship of ice hockey was that night and the Czech Republic team was going to play against Russia, a rematch in many eyes of a similar game in 1976, when the Soviet Union dominated a resentful Czechoslovakia and the Czechs won, giving a huge boost to national pride.

After getting back to the hostel and resting and changing clothes, the three of us walked around, not too far because Sarah had acquired some massive blisters and found a wonderful little Czech restaurant, where, over a bottle of Moravian wine, Czech cheese, and baked carp, we had a great time talking, watching the owner getting excited over the Czech win in hockey, and generally living it up.

Most of the conversation was dominated by an amusing, if unoriginal attempt to analyze me by the two girls, more amusing as the level of wine in the bottle dropped. Though much of the advice was contradictory (how can one both be genuine and mean enough to attract a girl?) I appreciated the effort.

By the time dinner was done it was pretty late so we went back to the hostel and hung out for a bit before I called it a night.

Flight Back to Munich and Almost Falling Asleep All Day

Despite my anxieties over getting up on time, I was out the door at five and caught the train and bus back to the airport (buying a ticket this time though I wasn’t asked for it ever). Everything at the airport went smoothly and I soon planted my feet back on German ground. The train ride home seemed interminable and I almost fell asleep then and there. I stayed focused long enough to throw my clothes in the laundry before lying down but I couldn’t sleep. I had booked such an early flight partially because I was unaware at the time that it was a holiday that Monday (Whit Monday I think) and I didn’t want to waste the glorious sunny day outside. I tried to coordinate some possibilities with people, and with one thing and another ended up going to the Chinese Tower in the English Garden a little before three in the afternoon to meet Alina (whom I had met a week earlier during cards at Jaeger’s) for beer and sunshine. It took me a while to find the tower in the garden but once there, I quickly located Alina and we sat down in the almost broiling sunlight, drinking beer, sharing an enormous pretzel, and chatting about what must have been thirteen or more inconsequential topics. I was barely holding it together fatigue-wise but I agreed to go get dinner, ending up at the Thai place near the center of town. I was so tired I had almost no appetite but I still had a nice time and was glad I went, and even gladder to get home and go to sleep afterward. Now I face the week content that I am traveling and exploring the way I wanted to since I first arrived.

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