Saturday, 17 September 2016

"The Amazing Race" Kind of Summer: Prague

You know that feeling when you see a stunningly beautiful woman right in front of you - and she takes your breath away. Regardless of her age. Or what gender you are. The undeniable beauty of such astronomical proportions that it leaves you weak at knees. How is it even possible to be  t h i s  perfect? Then you recover and start looking, searching for even a tiny flaw. But there is none. And you resolve: she's a goddess - a miracle. 
Karlův most - Charles Bridge
But then, you start feeling a tiny nudge, a mere hunch that something's not quite right with this picture but you don't know what it is. 
This is how Prague was for me. 

But I'm getting ahead of myself. 
If truth be told, how we picked destinations for our "Amazing Race" summer didn't have to do much with some grand mapping project, but rather more with the list of Star Alliance partners. All I knew was that I must summon my boy crew to Belgrade. Budapest was a short road trip away. Amsterdam and Prague were convenient Air Canada harbours where we could easily hop off the plane, roam around for a few days and hop back on to the next city. 

Signing at the dotted line! 
By then, our last stop of a four-city tour, the kids finally became restless. No wonder - we had dragged them with us by foot for 12 days, got them to try all sorts of authentic foods and to sleep in many different beds often way, way past their bed time. Clearly, this called for a bribe. But first, having the genius entrepreneurial husband that I have, they needed to sign a contract that listed expectations such as "Love thy brother" and "Listen to thy parents" just to make sure our first stop at the Praha's famous toy store didn't inadvertently end in a mega double tantrum. It worked: one Disney car track and one LEGO airport later, there was enough to look forward to in order to cooperate with the final ambitious city touring plan.

And then: BAM! The balmy summer afternoon, the cobblestone streets and wide vast city squares wowed us - first time Czech Republic visitors - and we instantly learned why Prague is actually called "Golden Prague". Not sure if it was the sunset glow or the manicured facades or the myriads of ornate details wherever we looked, but this city is impressive in all its glorious beauty. See for yourself. 

The rooftops of Prague

Prague Castle and St.Vitus Cathedral
Old City (Stare Mesto) 

Old Town Square

Astronomical Clock - it works since 1410!

National Theatre on the Vltava river
Bedrich Smetana Museum

Just like in Smetana's Vltava
The oh so Gothic Powder Tower
Wherever you are in Prague - Mala Strana, Staro Mesto, Vinohrady - wherever you look, you will be overwhelmed with sights that cramp, crowd and overlap both the view and the styles. "The City of a Thousand Spires" is an astonishing display of styles from Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque to Rococo, Art Nouveau, Cubist and ultra-modern. Cast iron fences with intricate ornaments, streetlights that looked like chandeliers, city buildings adorned in frescoes, churches on every corner with golden stars around Saints' heads; roof gargoyles that stare and scare and snarl if you dare lift your gaze in the presence of the god they honour. If Prague were a bride she would be a bridezilla. 
Jewish Quarter
But then the questions arose: how come Prague, unlike Belgrade or Budapest or Amsterdam, still has all these treasures preserved having lived through WWII? How is it possible that the old Jewish Cemetery and the Oldest Synagogue are still standing? The other cities don't even have Jewish quarters even though they call a part of the city in that way. New buildings and memorials have been built in the post war era to mark and honour, but there are no original monuments. Everything has been destroyed. 

The Old-New Synagogue clock

The chilling answer arrived the morning of our visit to Terezin - the Jewish Ghetto an hour away from Prague that served as a tool for the malicious Nazi propaganda, the smoke screen for the easy-to-fool International Red Cross, the brutal prison and transit camp for Czech Jews before they were sent to death camps of Treblinka, Majdanek and Auschwitz. Hitler had a plan for Prague so he ordered that each synagogue, cemetery and remnant of Jewish life be fully preserved - even though all other European cities suffered complete destruction. Prague was supposed to remain the "museum of the exterminated nation", a sick proof that once there were people of the Jewish sort and now there are none.

Terezin gate: 130 000 Jews passed through
The brutal conditions included standing-only sleeping rooms
Prisoners were executed, died of illness' or sent to death camps
The crematorium
90 000 Jews were sent from Teresienstadt to death camps
33 000 Jews perished in Terezin
So this is why I had this awkward and uncomfortable feeling meeting Prague for the first time. Like a Stepford wife of world capitals it was almost too beautiful to be true. Only 70 years ago these same cobblestone streets and vast city squares were a place of terror, torture and despair. And for me that is still very difficult to comprehend and accept.

We ended our "Amazing Race" summer by starting a new family tradition. At the end of our last day, thoroughly exhausted, we sat in the café the boys chose (it was called McQueen like the favourite Disney car!) and started listing all the things we loved the most over the past 2 weeks of roaming around Europe. Only one rule applied: no material objects allowed (such as toys, shopping items and such): "Racing the LEGO cars in Hemley's! Meeting my aunt! Sleepover at Milan & Nataša! Eating ćevapčići in Belgrade! Boat cruise on the Danube! Going to mama's school! Air races under the Budapest's Chain Bridge! Visiting Anne Frank's house. Sitting on top of the double-decker! Goulash soup! No, waffles with Nutella! Meeting mama's friends! Zooming on the Prague subway! First time on Air Serbia!..."

And so it went, again way past their bedtime - one remarkable family moment after another. We hugged our family and friends. We crossed rivers: Amstel, Danube, Sava and Vltava. We climbed the hills. We toured the castles. Rode on boats and streetcars, trolleybuses, subways and tall double deckers. Observed languages. Did math with Euros, Forints, Dinars and Crowns. Tasted everything from the crazy space cake and Hungarian veal schnitzel the size of an elephant's ear to Serbian Šopska salad and the pretzels chased with Staropramen beer. We learned the flags, admired our passport stamps and heard flagship songs. The boys can recognize each city's skyline in a heartbeat. And that in and of itself is the best kind of early emotion-and-meaning-loaded education I could possibly wish for.  

Until we travel again!

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