If there is one flaw that I know to be true of Europe, it’s about its airport transfers not turning up, well at least not 6 out of 10 times! This is where my local prepaid SIM comes in handy! To help me coordinate with the local ground handling agent/s to avoid stout taxi charges which could leave a hole in the pocket of a budget traveller. Also in being ripped off, again depending on the city you are in. This time it was Prague, which you must know is the capital of the Czech Republic. Not only did the driver not turn up, but when I called the agency, they spoke poor English too. For an international country, I find the average European inflexible when it comes to language.
I had to get to the hotel on time as the one thought uppermost in my mind was to get to see the city by night for night sight-seeing differs from day viewing. Illuminated Tours are common with European cities especially those with palaces and towers, rivers and bridges. Did you ever read fairy tales as a child? I did. It was, therefore, a childhood dream of mine to see the fairy tale of the Castle of Prague, especially as it spoke of a Good King who ruled his city well.
What would you enjoy best in the night? Of course, it would be a Ghost Tour! I pre-booked this tour on Viator as it wasn’t part of my current itinerary. It costs roughly between EUR 20-25 depending on its inclusions. Pre-booking a visit is a good idea as most local ones tend to get over-booked and not available on the spot, not even 2-3 days prior. If you are lucky you will get a well-informed English speaking guide but don’t expect it most of the time, I mean a well-versed guide. With language barriers common to Europe it is best to read up well before you embark on a tour if you want to travel back in time that is. An informed tourist is a happy tourist.
If you are in luck with purchasing a tour program on the spot, I suggest you pay in local currency, which is the Koruna in this case. 1 Euro equals approx. 26 Korunas. Even if Euros are accepted, you will invariably lose a bit in exchange. If, however, you are there for just a day, then you may give the Crowns a rest as they come of no use in any other city in Europe.
Why I chose this particular tour? Because it was more of a Walking Tour and anyone who’s traversed Europe would know that this continent is best explored on foot. Two hours for a start is good, on Day One I mean. I suggest this as anyone would be jet-lagged from a long flight. A good night’s rest and a hearty breakfast the next morning would give you that zest to walk hours. The best part is that you won’t feel weighed down in Spring weather.
River Cruises are alright for photos and perhaps a fine dining experience which works well for a first-time tourist. Or even perhaps to one who has seen it all and done it all. I fall somewhere in between, having a lot more to cover this part of the globe. Hence my preference is for walking tours vs. river tours with more to be seen on foot than otherwise.
What time of the year is my choice for Europe travel? Spring or Autumn, as they’re pleasantly cool seasons without necessarily having to shiver to the bone or skid on icy roads. My favourite months for travel are May and September because of its great weather and also because they don’t come priced at peak rates as in their Summers. Sans the Summer crowds too!
The tour usually starts from a common meeting point at the city centre OR from a hotel lobby if there are several tourists from the same hotel. A coach takes you to the city centre, passing through the city’s attractions. The later you start, the better, owing to daylight savings time set to Central European Time in Czech.
This first impressive sight came in the form of the Astronomical Clock in the Old Town Square. I think it was in District One of Praha which is the way the locals pronounce Prague. The clock was a sight to behold, best to catch when it chimes away on an hourly basis. It is accentuated with the figurines of the twelve apostles at every hour. True to its name, its mechanism shows not just the time but astronomical information too, like the positions of the sun, moon and the Zodiac.
The shadows at the Square loomed large and dark as stories were told of how its Protestant leaders were executed right where we were standing. Spooky, especially if there is no hand to hold.
The spookiness worsened with tales of the Headless Templar who apparently rode the paved streets with his head in his hand. Nobody was sure what the knight did to suffer a fate as this but that it was a much-loved ghost was evident. Just at that very moment, the clock struck eight, making me jump out of my skin. The tour group found this amusing.
Despite its spookiness, I was tempted to step into one of the elegant horse-drawn carriages which seemed to emerge from the First Century BC Romanesque days. However, I set my temptation to rest and followed the tour guide instead.
Not many tours explore the rooms under the Old Town Hall, covering its dungeons or an old residence or two. The first location wasn’t one to rave about but the second one made up for the first. Its history speaks of a gruesome past which can be slightly unsettling. The low lighting set the tone for a ghostly underground tour. So it wasn’t unnatural when I screamed as I felt a hand come down heavily on my shoulder. Well, at least I thought I’d screamed but came to learn later that I was speechless and froze like one of the statues dominating the Old Town Square. Or should I say like a statuette?
“Sorry, I missed a step“ came a voice from the shadows. You would understand why the voice made it even more unsettling for me as it would any normal being. Did ghosts speak?!!! It was the guide who realised that two persons were missing, me and the so-called ghost behind me. It was a fellow tourist who’d missed a few steps as he found it too dark to see down the stairwell leading towards the dungeons. It was his heavy hand that landed over my frozen shoulder. Not the feared ghost’s. Blind halfwit.
We then progressed towards the Charles Bridge, a notable landmark known for its Baroque statues along its length. A must see. Rising over the Vltava River, there’s an opalescent mood around with musicians playing lively tunes and generally making the night come alive. This sets the tone for the castle looming large in the background hill.
The focus of my tour was the Prague Castle whose history I must speak of for without its knowledge the tour wouldn’t be half as enjoyable. Bohemian would be the word to describe this city’s historical past. Not a History student per se, what I remember from the guide’s explanation was that Prague flourished in the 14th century under the rule of the Roman Emperor Charles IV. The Golden Age, it is so termed.
In the 16th century came the great Austrian Habsburgs monarchy who ruled Prague until the Year 1918. The guide spoke of how the Protestants came up in arms against corrupt Catholic councillors and often threw them from the Prague Castle windows. This casting out of people from its castle windows apparently sparked off the Europe-wide Thirty Years War.
When imagination is given form, it is easy to visualise how councillors fell into the castle’s moat which, as legend has it, rescued them from an otherwise sure death. Myth or truth, believe what you may.
This golem was believed to be made of clay and possessed magical powers which would make it go after the attackers of the Jews.Yet another story was that of the Golem of Prague which was built by a Jewish Rabbi to protect the Jewish quarter ruled by Rudolf II. The unfortunate Jews lived in fear in the ghettos which speak of a long history which can go into pages. A sordid history at that, one that dates back to the horrific Nazi rule.
There is yet another version of why this golem ran amok, but that is another story altogether.
Daliborka Tower @ Prague, the Czech Republic where Dalibor (the rebellious knight) was imprisoned
When I thought I was just about getting wired up about creatures, dead knights and haunted underground chambers, the Daliborka Tower story emerged. Within the castle grounds lies a Daliborka Tower formerly used as a prison for the nobility and in the latter years included the common man. The name takes after its first prisoner Dalibor whose fate brought him into the confines of this prison because he was a sort of a Robinhood in that day, protecting non-conformist serfs. He is known to have been one of the first inmates of the prison and of having learnt to play the violin inside it until he was executed. He was loved by the entire city of Prague from his sweet violin notes that earned him everyone’s sympathy and some bread. When the sweet notes stopped to play one day it was not hard to guess that his end had come. If you ask for more, the violin story gets murkier as some say it was an instrument of torture. With the heads of the prisoners pushed into the holes of the violin the music was known to be more discordant than sweet. Either which way the story tugs at heart, as it did the citizens of Prague too. I had to take the guide’s word for it, later confirmed by formal articles on the subject.
Then there is the story of the murdered nun who once was the daughter of a wealthy nobleman. Contrary to his wishes she fell head over heels in love with a poor knight. She was therefore banished to St Agnes Convent which was disastrous to her love. She apparently tried to meet her lover before being shunted to the convent. Her father, unfortunately, heard of her secret meeting and murdered her in a fit of rage. After her tragic death, her ghost was seen by many. She was considered a good spirit who was known to come to the rescue of hapless girls.
There are several other ghost stories to Prague, but that would take you to its other parts like Petrin Hill known for its Petrin Fire ghost story, best left to explore another night.
The tour ended in the Krizik’s Fountain Show with thousands of multi–coloured water jets, glittering in the nighttime. It was a welcome relief from the ghostly tour. And money’s worth too.
Returned to the hotel with a head full of ghosts and lights from the past. Much to feed the night (mare) with!
More “concentration” on my Prague trip to follow in the next blog post.