Prague: Czechs and the City

It’s freezing and the hastily bought umbrella from a Jewish Quarter store is no use to the increasingly strong rains. The group — our group, plus a young American couple, another American middle-aged man, and a Swedish dude — tries very hard to raise the resolute commitment our Puerto Rican tour guide has. It’s one of those free walking tours that commence at the Old Town, where you just show up and you go as soon as the group reaches a certain size. In our case, it doesn’t take long.

Despite the soggy weather, the show goes on. The frustration and the excitement is evident. There’s potential for colds later on and we still have just under a month left in Europe. Three hours of downpour and biting winds are reasons enough why I shouldn’t be walking outside… But I am.

Prague is that good.

“In behalf of the Czech Republic, I am so sorry… so sorry about the weather… the rain,” our tour guide says. I don’t know his name, and I never bother to ask, but he’s an interesting chap. He knows so much about the Czech Republic, as well as about neighboring Slovakia, as a result of having lived in the country for almost a decade now. He stutters a lot, but he dispenses bits of information about Prague like they’re some sort of topics you talk about someone over a casual coffee break.

“It’s okay. We’re enjoying it anyway,” someone in our group says. There’s some truth to it but I can also sense a bit of sympathy. Guides such as ours never receive payment for their troubles aside from tips. It’s a pity especially when they have to trudge around even in foul weather.

Not that Prague is a large city. In fact, major sights are in such a compact area and the transport network is so effective the best can be achieved even without a tour. The place is teeming with history and architecture — from Gothic to Cubist — you can simply loiter around and still land on an interesting place. Granted, Prague’s steady rise in fame has led to tacky commercialism virtually everywhere but walk a bit more and soon, the crowds begin to thin out.

Meanwhile, the rains continue to provide a test of endurance and quick-wittedness. Keeping the camera hidden in my jacket, it’s getting hard to take proper pictures with my DSLR while one hand is preoccupied with trying to keep the umbrella steady despite the winds. My backpack is already drenched. The rest of the group is now pushing on to Malá Strana while I’m still in the middle of Charles Bridge, trying to fill my memory card with as much image as I can without much regard for proper composition, exposure, and the aesthetics for photography in general. So much for a photography course in college. In this situation, it’s the best I can do.

The Vltava River has now risen to an alarming level. It never usually rains this hard in the country, I remember our guide said at one point in the tour. But I also remember reading about the river killing several people and causing extensive damage when it flooded Prague in 2002. A chill goes down my spine.

I run to catch up with the group. They’re already soaking up the Malá Strana where there’s charm aplenty in the cobbled streets, filled with a colony of vibrant pubs, shops, and drunk Irish men strumming a guitar and singing indecipherably. At the end of the main street, when you turn right, at the left corner, there’s a Starbucks with a door designed to look like one from the Dark Ages. It’s just like that. The district drips with a medieval aura although modern hallmarks somewhat ruin the effect.

“Meet you here in fifteen minutes,” our guide finally says as we reach Hradčany. We don’t so much explore the district as simply make it a stopover to fill our stomachs with sandwiches and coffee on our way to the Prague Castle. The showers have now turned into a drizzle but there are still no signs of the clouds letting up. I take this time to check my bag, which contain my external hard drive, my other lenses, and some brochures from the previous countries. Thankfully, there’s a waterproof interior lining and other than a moist camera bag, everything’s fine.

Tummy grumbles fixed, we have enough energy to hike up the rising streets to the castle. We reach the grounds in time for the hourly changing of the guards. “It’s a bit of a letdown if you’ve seen the one at the Buckingham Palace,” our guide says. “Here, it’s a lot more informal affair and the guards aren’t as stiff as the Red Guards.”

Not quite a letdown, I think after seeing the proceedings. But I pity the guards for having to endure the weather, which is starting to get worse anew. Granted, they stand in what seems to be a tall doghouse barely large enough to fit them in, but it’s still a boring job as far as I’m concerned.

We now enter the first courtyard. The young American couple bids farewell to the rest of the group, excusing themselves for a previous commitment. We head on to the world’s biggest ancient castle, or at least that’s what the Guinness Book of Records says. Built in the 9th century, the structure underwent a number of renovations, with the latest performed in 1936. It has housed various Czech rulers, including leaders of the former Czechoslovakia. After the Velvet Divorce, it became the seat of the Czech government.

According to our guide, if Czech’s leader, President Václav Klaus, is in the country (not necessarily in the castle itself), a flag will be flying high atop the castle. If he is, say, having a vacation somewhere in the Mediterranean, there will be no flag. There is no flag.

We take our pictures just outside the castle grounds to the other side of Hradčany, overlooking the city. With the tour dealt with and our eyes satiated from the beauty of Prague, we can return to the hostel, take a warm shower, and figure out what to do with our wet clothes in the absence of a laundry service.

Gray skies and a bad weather will be my version of Prague for a long time, if not forever. But it’s perfectly fine. Rain or shine, the city is still a photogenic star. Yep, Prague is that good.

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