Monday, April 4, 2016

#10.1: Czech Republic. The Spared City.


Not many of us over the course of our lives are forced with a decision like Czechoslovak president Emil Hácha had in the spring of 1939. After much of his country had been dismantled piece by piece by his own allies in Britain and France during what has become known as Mnichovská zrada, or the "Munich Betrayal," he was now face-to-face in Berlin with a emboldened Adolf Hitler and presented with the most sinister ultimatum that a lover of one's country could be faced with: he was told that Nazi troops were already on the march, and to have his countrymen lay down their arms or Prague would bombed into oblivion. Upon this news the deceived and stunned Hácha, who thought himself on a diplomatic mission to the German capital, saw himself with no choice and signed the papers which reduced his nation to a Nazi protectorate for the remainder of the war, but not before the poor man literally had a heart attack from the whole ordeal, having to be revived by Hitler's personal doctor.

Hácha no doubt saved his countrymen from almost certain annihilation by the Wermacht and in capitulating also spared Prague from the destruction of the Luftwaffe. As a result, unlike many cities in Europe, Prague stands to this day intact as a city untouched for centuries. For my final spring break of college, I set out on my fourth trip with my two step-brothers to this incredible place. In a way, everything in Prague seems familiar: I'm convinced that every fairy-tale imagined by Disney was in some way designed after Prague with its towering hilltop castle, old stone bridges and fancy clock-tower. I kept waiting to discover the grungier side of Prague: like the graffiti covered Franco era tenements which I'd seen tower over the outskirts of Madrid, or the unlit alleys of downtown Lima which overflowed with trash and feral dogs. But it didn't come. The city was spotless on every corner.

You may think it odd for three 20 something guys, in a city known for its nightlife and "caution to the wind" type culture, but our days in Prague were in search of only a few simple things: good Czech beer and Don Giovanni. And not just any Don Giovanni... I'm talking Don Giovanni performed by nothing other than tiny marionette dolls hung on strings from above. To this day, I'm not sure if it was just a huge joke we were witnessing, or some very authentic glimpse of Moravian culture. In any case, we found the Don Giovanni and we found the good Czech beer we were looking for (at Restaurace U Dvou Koček. The top review is particularly insightful, I thought. And also perhaps somewhat telling: to actually find the good reviews to this place, you have to filter by only Czech ones. Americans apparently hate the place... but that makes me like it all the more).

On the second or third night in the city, snow began falling. The red rooftops slowly began to disappear under sheets of white, and the cobblestone plazas became slick and shiny. The next day we made our way across the iconic Charles Bridge and up the hill to Prague Castle, which the Czechs claim is the largest one in the world and upon not much inspection this is completely believable. From its hilltop perch, it completely dominates the city, which perhaps out of respect for its rich history has not produced a modern building anywhere near able to rival its imposing stone spires. After taking this giant structure all in, we made our way back down the hill with some hot mulled Czech wine and headed for bus 16 into the Czech countryside towards the city of Terezin. Though untouched by the bombs of World War II, Terezin reminds that Czechs were by no means spared the horrors of Naziism; underneath the beautiful castles, Rococo architecture and silly marionette shows lies a much more sinister story.

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