For all the positive habits homeschooling introduced into my life, one that I find myself struggling with in adulthood is a crippling inability to turn down playing outside in unseasonably nice weather – especially in fall, when you know any glowing warmth of sunshine could be the last of its kind for the season. So Warsaw’s fairly average conditions last week were a boon in my focusing on work while there. A cloudy and windy Monday-Thursday I spent meeting with the engineering team for Container Engine – the Cloud product I design for – and was largely either in my hotel or at the office. Despite the rocky start of waking up horrifically jetlagged at 2:30AM on Monday, overall the time was fiercely productive.
When Friday rolled around though it was time to turn my vacation responder blissfully on: I was off to Prague to meet up with my friend Josh for a few days of exploring the Czech Republic’s capital city. As my prop plane touched down in PRG (it’s a quick 1hr 30min from Warsaw), the morning haze was clearing and I stepped out into deliciously clear autumn air with blue skies overhead. Josh and I had agreed to meet up at a burger joint near the AirBnb we’d booked for the weekend. En route from the airport I looked out at the fall foliage’s shifting hues of orange and gold and smiled at the smell of fall. The countryside of Bohemia surprised me with its similarity to where I grew up in Northern New York. Especially on our Saturday day trip to nearby Karlštejn, I found myself strongly reminded of home (with the notable exception of the occasional castle jutting out of a forest) by rolling hills’ cloaked in golds and russets, fields with grazing cows, and winding wooded roads.
After burgers and a stein of the ubiquitous Pilsner Urquell, we made our way to our AirBnb, dropped our bags, and set out on foot to explore. Josh is a few weeks into teaching highschool English in a small Czech town and had already spent a good amount of time familiarizing himself with Prague, so he acted as tour guide.
“It’s like being in a tale”, my friend Raquel had told me of Prague, and indeed, walking the cobblestone streets and craning my neck to drink in the ornate architecture painted in caramels and peaches and pistachios, it felt like the setting of something from the Grimm brothers. Every detail – from the gargoyles lining terra-cotta rooftops down to the street signage and smell of freshly-baked gingerbread fit together in a suspension-of-reality sort of magic.
We decided to put on our running gear and walk toward Letná Park; once we arrived there our lunch had settled sufficiently to allow us to get in a three mile jog that wound through shaded paths with arching basswoods overhead and along a bluff with expansive views of the Vltava River and beyond it, Prague. As one of the features serving as a reminder that one’s not in medieval Europe, at the top of the park there’s a series of concrete surfaces that have been adopted as a skate park by local aficionados. Even with modern / historical juxtapositions like this, Prague seems to finesse the side-by-side presentation better than anywhere I’ve been; there’s a coherence to its charm.
On our way back we swung through Prague’s Old Town Square and snapped some selfies with Tyn Church and the iconic Astronomical Clock. Showered, we hit the streets again so I could chase the last of the setting sun’s Golden Hour light as it edged up walls past window-boxes overflowing with geraniums. Increasing our dinner establishment selection’s adventurousness from our lunch of burgers, once the sun had set and the captivating luster had gone from the alleyways we headed to V Kolkovne – a traditional Czech restaurant. Minutes after seating ourselves and being brought waters by an endearingly brusque waiter, we turned around at the sound of someone bursting out of the restaurant behind us. An older man staggered a few steps, then projectile vomited into the street. “‘Always a good sign…” I muttered to Josh. The meal, despite the off-putting initial ambiance, turned out to be an excellent one, and the miles walked & ran contributed to our appreciation I’m sure. I’ve forgotten the name now, but my dish essentially consisted of a half kilo of various meats: kielbasa, ham, pork knuckle, and beef of some description. Food in Czechia generally seemed about 1/3 less than I’d pay in the US. Beer was more like a fourth the cost – $1.50 USD for a half liter. I’m not a big beer drinker, but Czech beer is worthy of its hype 🍻
Saturday’s adventure was to catch a train 40 min southwest to the town of Karlštejn to hike to “Hrad Karlštejn”, or Karlštejn Castle. The day started out with my getting olive oil stains 4’ up the kitchen wall from exploding ham shrapnel (who knew?) while cooking breakfast. I promptly escalated the graveness of the situation by 8000% when, in trying to remove said olive oil, I managed to rub off a Twinkie-sized patch of paint from the wall. [Editor’s note: our AirBnb host graciously extended forgiveness and absolved me of guilt related to in the incident. We’ve since left each other five star reviews. Waiting for Dreamworks to call about rights to the movie adaptation any day ✨] From that…challenging start, things improved immensely.
Our first stroke of luck was finding a train ticketing machine that worked and then having the requisite cash to operate it; this might sound trivial, but ‘was looking a bleak for a few minutes. The second was Saturday happening to be Karlštejn’s annual festival where they celebrate the production of “burcak”, or “young wine” – wine before it’s fully fermented. As we disembarked from the train into the mid-morning sunshine and crunch of gravel underfoot, the throng of people all eagerly headed in the same direction informed us which way to walk, and soon over the river and to the town itself. A milling crowd stretched out before us and on either side of the main street were a colorful mix of permanent shops and temporary booths selling all manner of food, drink, and souvenirs. Performers played traditional Czech music. Every step brought a new sensory delight: fresh-baked pastries, cured meats, grilled sausages, hot crepes drizzled with chocolate, and of course: crisp, slightly tart burcak. There’s two variants of burcak: one from red grapes and one from green, and it tastes similar to sparkling grape juice.…11% abv sparkling grape juice. Karlštejn’s wine festival is every year on the anniversary of Charles the IV and his wife (for whom Karlstejn Castle was a summer home), and as part of the medieval flair, lots of people put on [very ornate] period dress. I’ve never been to Renaissance fair, but it was sort of what I picture one to be like.
Josh and I wandered lazily, bought some beers, and steadily progressed up the incline of the fair. Wooded hills sloped up and away from both sides of the street and gave a cozy, nestled feel to the town. As we rounded a bend in the road, we got our first glimpse of the castle way up on the hill before us: pennants flying, turrets stretching into the sky…looking altogether very much like what I imagined castles to look like. As we learned on the tour, Karlštejn was started in 1348 and took 17 years to complete. Our tour was in Czech, but we’d met up with Josh’s fellow Fulbright scholar Maeve and her Czech host family, so we got whispered SparkNotes translations in the back of the group from their 10-year-old son Andy (who did an admirable job, I should point out).
After the tour we made our way back down the hill and slowed to a stop at the sound of marching drummers advancing toward us. We joined onlookers in watching a parade pass by of King Charles and the Queen themselves, knights, jesters, courtiers, one very unhappy -looking rabbit, and whomever else makes up your standard royal medieval escort.
From Karlštejn, Josh and I had ambitiously planned to hike 10 miles to the town of Beroun and from there catch the train back to Prague, but 1) It was solidly mid-afternoon and daylight was likely going to be an issue for that substantial a trek, 2) We had no idea where the trailhead for the hike was, and 3) We had friendly guides and lovely company in Maeve’s host family and so we decided to join them in a shorter hike. Our route took us to three limestone quarries: Malá Amerika, Mexiko, and Velká Amerika, or “Little America”, “Mexico”, and “Big America.” Why and how they got their names I wasn’t able to figure out, but I heard them described as “the Grand Canyon of the Czech Republic” a few times so that may have had something to do with it. Grand Canyon they were not, but each was arrestingly beautiful in its own way, and the trails connecting them were a idyllic mix of open beech forests and pastoral fields sloping down to technicolor-dappled valleys. The trail was easy, and the late-day sun kissing my skin I found myself in a happy sort of trance, soaking in each freshly-revealed panorama.
Our hopes of procuring food in the small town where we concluded the hike portion of our walking were met with disappointment. We still had 2km to get back to Karlstejn, so, unflappable band that we were, we resolutely continued on down a quiet, winding road as the sun set and dusk fell. Once back in Karlstejn, we stopped at the first restaurant we found and plopped down with contented sighs. Though we’d abbreviated our original itinerary, Josh and I still ended up covering 12 miles in the day.
Josh and I said goodbye to Maeve and her host family and started to make our way back through town to the train station. Passing once again through the festivities (still going strong), we paused so I could satisfy a sudden craving for, “Whatever those egg-sized chocolates are between the chocolate-covered blueberries and chocolate-covered almonds” (chocolate-covered dried strawberries 😍). As we were standing there, event staff started moving the crowd back and clearing a space in the street. Looking around, we noticed people seemed to be waiting for something; a few teens had climbed a wall on the other side of the cleared space of street and were jovially biding their time…onlookers were arriving at the spot steadily and at an increasing rate. I looked at my phone: 7:44PM: assuming whatever this event was was going to happen on the hour, it must be a pretty damn big deal for people to patiently stake out the venue this far in advance. We decided to join the mass and be surprised by whatever these Czechs evaluated as being such a good time.
A few minutes after 8PM, the street now densely packed and humming with excitement, we distantly heard the marching drums of earlier that day. Soon Charles IV and his squad – now bearing torches – were back, and progressed through the cleared section of street to assume seats on stepped wooden bleachers. The significance of the King’s introductory speech was lost on us without Andy our translator, but soon enough we picked up the git of the event: two nights grabbed flaming swords and started battling it out. Josh and I looked at each other and grinned – we were in.
Because the chocolate-covered dried strawberries had opened the floodgates of my potential for sugar lust, I’d made a run (er…waddle) back up the hill to find one of the “trdelník” I’d been drooling over all day – a sugary spiral of fried-dough filled with soft ice cream. As a consequence I’d lost my ringside viewing spot, and watching the action from my periscoped iPhone over my head was beginning to get old. I glanced around and considered my options. The teens on the wall had the right idea, but they were now isolated from the part of the crowd I was in, and I didn’t feel like wandering back alleyways in the dark trying to find their access point. There was a tree a centrally located on the square; it’s holds looked pretty meager but I figured I’d wander over and suss it out – I didn’t have much to lose. I pushed my way through to the base and looked up. There were already three costumed event patrons taking up arboreal residence. If they’d gotten up there with their little leather elf-shoes, surely I could trdelník-boost my way up. The fire dancers drums beat louder. I stepped up on a wobbly trashcan and felt around for holds in the dark. Nothing presented itself as especially positive so I paused for a few seconds and reassessed how worth it this was… At that moment, another costumed lad got a boost up and deftly wrapped his arms around the biggest branch and swung his way into the notch of the tree. Accepting a flask from friend, he looked down at my envious and deflated expression, smiled, and reached out his hand. Briefly weighing the inebriation of the person I was about to become reliant on and the value of the camera lens on my back, I hesitated, but another of the tree-people stepped in to give me a foothold, and before I knew it I was being hoisted up. I lost count, but there ended up being five or six of us the tree total: me at the top of the heap, completely blocked from exit those that had taken up residence after me. I was OK with this, as I now had – with the exception of a few branches and leaves – one of the best seats in the house for the remaining fire dancing show. Light from the flames flickered and cast shadows in time with the drums. At the conclusion of full-cast finale, the crowd roared in approval. I got a helping hand down from my perch, rejoined Josh, and we resumed our walk to the train station – thrilled that we’d lucked into the concluding event of the festival (anyone still keeping track of these for the day…?).
We missed our train by a few minutes, so to kill the next 45 minutes we wandered next door to a bar where a band was shredding some gnarly classic rock tunes. This, and watching the intensity with which Czech fans got down to “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Highway to Hell” was the cherry on top of the day. Because the atmosphere was bizarre to the point of being hard to get across in words, I’ll just leave this video here:
I’m flying back to the States now, and our plane’s caught up with today’s sunset after crossing north over Greenland – I get to watch it in reverse: gaining back those 9 hours I lost when flying east to Warsaw over a week ago. Prague felt like an escape to another time: such a staggeringly rich strata of history and natural and man-made beauty to take in. Four days was only enough to scratch the surface of what the area had to offer, but I feel like I’m satiated my wanderlust for a bit and am ready to head back to routine and familiar. My little 1-bedroom apartment seems so distant right now; ‘spins me out to think I’ll be back in a few hours. I’m on my way Seattle!