On our recent trip to Paris, I noticed a slew of locks attached to the Pont de l’Archevêché . It reminded me that we’ve seen locks on bridges in Prague and Ljubljana, and while I knew the locks represented love, I never researched why. Luckily, a New York Times article did it for me.
The article claims that installing “love locks” on a bridge became popular after Federico Moccia wrote a 2006 book titled, I Want You. In it, a man tells a woman a made-up legend in which lovers encase a lock around a bridge, lock it and throw the key into the Tiber, to show that they’ll never leave each other. After the book sold over a million copies, life became art. However, it’s worth noting that one journalist actually cites it as a Serbian tradition from World War II, when couples from the town of Vrnjacka Banja symbolically sealed their love before the men went off to fight.
Regardless of its origin, the practice hasn’t been confined to Europe. A quick web search shows that there are love lock bridges on almost every continent. I even found several websites encouraging honeymooners to bring locks with them and “seal the deal,” so to speak.
Here’s the thing: it’s really stupid. Not only do the locks damage stonework and affect the weight of the bridge, crappy padlocks add nothing to architectural beauty. They do make for some interesting pictures, but that’s about it.
As much as I love Muz, I’m not buying a perfectly good lock, wasting it on a bridge, and then polluting the river with a metal key. I guess I’m just cheap. And not terribly romantic.
Besides, love–and locks–can go awry. Apparently, spurned lovers sometimes return and write terrible things about their (former) loved ones on locks and bridges. So while I’m all for tradition, especially Serbian ones, I’d advise people to leave their locks for luggage–and seal your love with a kiss instead.
It’s awfully hard to top last week’s church of bones, but I’ll have to make do with a church built in a castle. Prague Castle is a complex of churches and former royal residences that are now government offices or museums. Sort of like an office park on serious steroids…
Castle construction began in 870 (no missing digit here) and continued in almost every century until shortly after World War I. Today, Prague Castle is the largest ancient-medieval-contiguous castle in the world, depending on the source, and is almost 18 acres large. The castle is protected by a wall and impressive gate guarded by men in snazzy outfits.
The jewel of the castle complex is the Saint Vitus Roman Catholic Cathedral. Its twin spires peek out over the castle walls and dominate the western skyline of Prague. Cathedral design began in 1344, but wasn’t completed until 1929 due to changes in plans, architects and politics. Six hundred years of construction. Makes a bathroom renovation look like a piece of cake, doesn’t it?
The Cathedral entrance is includes sculptures, a huge rose window, and easy-to-miss images of the last two architects to work on the cathedral, Josef Mocker and Kamil Hiblert. Their images strike me as a bit egomaniacal–kind of like classy graffiti–but it’s a quirky touch on an otherwise imposing building.
The interior is meant to impress, and succeeds. The gothic nave seems to be a mile long and is flanked by art noveau stained glass windows. The side altars are practically the size of some stand-alone chapels. It’s the most famous cathedral in Prague for a reason, but that also means that it was desperately crowded in late July.
Entrance to the cathedral is free–to a point. To reach church highlights such as the Sarcophagus of St. John of Nepomuk, the Royal Crypt and Chapel of St. Wenceslas, visitors must purchase a ticket for entry. Package ticket prices range from $15-$20 USD with another $6 surcharge to climb one of the famed towers. It’s not exactly a bait-and-switch, but guidebooks that claim that entrance is free aren’t exactly correct.
Normally I’d be the first person to pay up but the price seemed a bit steep and I was “churched out.” Muz and I decided to see the other buildings in the castle complex and head back to Lesser Town for a drink. I think the guards liked that plan too: we saw them exiting the grounds just ahead of us…just in time for happy hour.
After no more than three recommendations by people who (correctly) think I like to see weird churches, we finally had a chance to visit the Ossuary Sedlec in Prague. Sedlec is in the town of Kunta Hora, a one-hour train ride from Prague. Why would I spend hours of my precious two days in Prague going to this Church? Because the interior is decorated with human bones. Really.
The exterior of the 15th Century gothic church looks normal. Well, there IS a skull-and-crossbones paved into the sidewalk, but even that can’t prepare visitors for what lies in store. Upon entering, a visitor is confronted with the thought of death and the sight of thousands of artfully arranged skeletons.
The bones were arranged by a woodcarver named František Rint, who spelled out his name on one wall of the church. Oddly, this was the only display of bones I found to be a little tacky.
Rint gets most of the credit for Sedlec’s unique appearance, but he wasn’t the first person to decorate the space this way. The pyramids were supposedly built by a half-blind monk in 1511. Jan Blazej Santini, a Czech architect who rebuilt the chapel, incorporated the bone pyramids in the chapel entrance. After all, something had to be done with the overabundance of bones buried in the cemetery.
The cemetery had been been in use since the 1278, when an abbot sprinkled holy soil on the site. As news of this act spread, wealthy people sought to be buried there. After losses from plague in the 14th Century and the Hussite wars in the early 15th Century, the bodies piled up. To quote Muz’s worst joke ever, the Sedlec cemetery was so popular, people were dying to get in there.
The Schwarzenberg family (local aristocrats) were disturbed by the piles of people and hired Rint to do something about it. His solution was as macabre as it is beautiful. Over 40,000 bodies were used to decorate the church. The rest of the bones were reburied. The cemetery is now a neat and carefully attended plot of land surrounding the church.
Some might think that the decoration does a disservice to the people who died; others might believe that the decor is sacreligious. The church carefully notes that the bones are meant to represent man’s equality. To paraphrase the church leaflet, it’s believed that all who were buried here will be resurrected in whole, and that they represent the multitudes before God. Still, this Housewife couldn’t help but note the elaborate crypt for 15 wealthy citizens. No one messed with their skeletons.
Still, Sedlec Ossuary, aka “Bone Church” is eerily beautiful in a unique way. It was a strange reminder of our own mortality, the beauty in strange things, and man’s odd response to seeing lots of skeletons: we decided to get back to Prague and put a little meat on our own bones with a Magnum McFlurry.
In one (overused) word, Prague is charming. Unlike many of its neighbors, Prague was spared severe bombing in World War II so the city’s gothic, neoclassical, baroque and art nouveau buildings are well-preserved. If you don’t know what those terms mean, not to worry: it’s really pretty. Yet there’s enough realism to make the city approachable. Many buildings are cloaked in soot. At night, the statues on Charles Bridge are covered in spiders. It’s interesting without being imposing.
Guidebooks give the Old Town the most acclaim, but I found Lesser Town to be the best place for a stroll. I liked the cafes, hidden streets, and quirky sense of irony and artistry. It’s also the old German area, for those looking for a bit of history with their espresso.
If you’re not into architecture, the city’s park system is a lovely way to pass an afternoon. We saw lots of picnics with wine bottles. Based on the number of sporting goods stores we saw, there are also hiking opportunities outside of the city. The Czechs seem to be fit, but not overly friendly. We didn’t chat with many locals. Then again, I imagine the appeal of meeting foreigners lost its luster long ago. Most people speak English well, though our Serbian came in handy at the rail station. Basic Serbian vocabulary is surprisingly similar to Czech.
Though Prague is no longer the cheap destination it was in the late 1990s, there are still tons of backpackers. We heard a lot of Spanish, Italian, and English. I’m past my backpacking phase of life (sort of), but it was fun to see so many people ready to take on the world with a tent and a rucksack.
The only part of Prague that disappointed us was the food. We didn’t go to high-end restaurants, but the local, traditional cuisine is a little bland. Meat is not as tasty as it is in Serbia. Restaurant service is indifferent. Yet beer is cheap and delicious. We didn’t see any stag parties but I hear they are ubiquitous on the weekends.
Would I recommend Prague? Absolutely. It’s gorgeous, easy to get around, and has a unique culture. Yet Prague is “on the map,” so to speak, and will continue to be a popular destination for people past the hostel stage. If you’re looking for adventure, I’d recommend other Eastern locales. Still, you can’t beat the romance of Prague…and the humor behind the public art.
How do you find the Museum of Communism? Walk to McDonald’s, follow signs for a casino, and turn left. That’s not a joke.
I’m a sucker for non-traditional museums, and this one fit the bill perfectly. It’s a little pricey (almost $10 USD) but a good primer for people interested in Communist history, specifically Communist Prague. The museum is in apartment-like quarters and seems like a bizarre aunt’s collection of Wikipedia entries, garage sale items, and theater props. In a good way. Though the Communist paraphenilia is a bit jumbled, there are some treasures, like this sweet Tesla radio poster:
I found the Prague-specific displays the most interesting, especially the black market beauty section and the explanation of the black market for dollars/exchange rate for koruna. (I’d write more about that, but I have approximately two readers interested in the subject.) They even displayed a mock storefront that highlighted the lack of consumer goods. The case contained packets of what appeared to be powdered ham. I can’t even imagine how awful that tastes.
The museum has a curious lack of first-hand accounts from people living under Communist rule in Prague. Perhaps that’s because its founders, according to my guidebook, are American. However the museum does show films taken during the Velvet Revolution. While the end of Communist Prague is hailed for its non-violence, the footage reveals the brutality and bravery that preceded democracy in the Czech Republic. This footage is similar to what I saw in the museum.
After watching the sobering vignettes, I cheered myself up with a dose of capitalism: shopping for museum souvenirs and enjoying a Starbucks macchiato. I introduced my “ladies” to each other, but one was a bit tense.
I suppose I can understand why. If Marx were around today, I think he’d proclaim Starbucks the opiate of the masses instead.
Prague visitors can find the Museum of Communism at Na Příkopě 852/10. The museum’s website can be found HERE.
While we were in Prague, we decided to try a beer with a different look but a very familiar-sounding name: Budweiser. That’s right, the beer synonymous with U.S. barbecues and red Solo cups has roots (sort of) in the Czech Republic. Around 1876, Adolphus Busch of Busch beer fame named a new brew “Budwieser, King of Beers.” Some say he picked the name out of the map randomly, but others claim that he modeled his beer on a Czech pilsner from Budvar. Budweiser is the German name for Budvar, Czech Republic, where beer has been brewed since 1785. To complicate matters, nineteen years after Busch formed his company, the Budvar Brewery was formed and sold its beer under the name Budweiser.
A brewsky battle began a century later, when efforts to expand the respective beer markets led to an awkward introduction. Busch had trademarked the name in America; Budvar had European rights. The two agreed to stay out of each others’ territory, but globalization and thousands of lawyers later, the two companies are still duking out the rights to the name Budweiser.
We grabbed a bottle of the stuff to develop our own stake in the cold beer conflict. Budvar Budweiser tasted akin to the King of Beers (KoB), which isn’t surprising since they’re both pilsner. However, Budvar Budweiser is smoother and lacks the the watery essence and slightly metallic aftertaste that seems to be the hallmark of the KoB. We preferred the Budvar, but nothing compared to the cheap and plentiful Pilsner Urquell that flows through Prague.
If you’re interested in trying Budvar Budweiser, but lack the funds or will to get to Prague, take heart: the beer is now sold in the United States under the name Czechvar.
The name may not roll off the tongue, but the beer might. “Czech” out the distributor on Czechvar’s web page: it’s none other than Anheuser-Busch. And you thought politics made strange bedfellows…