Prague Wrap Up Post

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And now it’s time to live up to the “travelogue” part of my blog description, and give you a rundown of all the non-museum stuff I discovered in Prague.  I’ll get to the first picture in this post in a second, but the second one is just of some church down the street from my communist-looking hotel.  I totally dug the castley turret bits.

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We of course had to see the famous astronomical clock, so we got that out of the way the first night we were there.  Though I wasn’t fond of the fifty million other tourists crammed into the square, and I had a death grip on my purse the whole time in case someone tried to grab it, I AM a big fan of that little skeleton perched on the edge of the clock who rings a bell on the hour.  I could have done without the religious figures spinning around the top in favour of more Mr. Skeleton, but meh, when in Prague.  I also fell for Fish Man, just a couple streets away from the astronomical clock.  I assume he’s some kind of fish-related saint, but I prefer to invent a back-story wherein he is a grizzled old fisherman who watches over the street with his fishy bounty.  And the Charles Bridge is hell; personally, I would have happily skipped it in the first place…now that I’ve experienced it, there will certainly not be a next time.

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If you’re walking the streets in any kind of touristed area in Prague, you will come across the trdelnik (I like to pronounce it turtleneck, but I imagine it’s more like tr-DEL-nik).  It is identical to the Hungarian kurtoskalacs, or the Anglicised “chimney cakes” you sometimes see at Christmas markets in the UK (also the West Side Market in Cleveland used to have a stand selling them, so I imagine they’re available in places in the US with a sizeable Eastern European population, as it’s apparently a common pastry in many Slavic countries).  It’s essentially a yeasted dough cooked on a spit, and coated with cinnamon and sugar whilst it bakes, so it develops a lightly carmelised sugary crust.  Basically, it’s like a really crispy cinnamon roll, so it’s obviously delicious.  Rumour has it that it’s not actually a traditional Czech pastry, and is in fact limited to Prague, but the smell will lure you in at some point, national dish or not.  Since I don’t eat meat, my options in Czech restaurants were pretty much limited to fried cheese or…fried cheese, which was fine the first night, but got a little tiresome, especially at the one place I ordered it where it didn’t even come with chips.  You at least need the chips to break it up, especially if you hate tartar sauce as much as I do, because that’s what’s always served on the side.  Horrible, horrible tartar sauce.  Therefore, trdelniks were one of my main forms of sustenance, and I was grateful for them.  The best are rumoured to come from a crepe shop near the castle (with a little trdelnik man out front, you can see him pictured above), but I didn’t think they were anything special.  I mean, it’s a hot cinnamon pastry, it’s going to be good no matter what, and they were 60 CZK at literally every place I saw them, so just get one wherever, you can’t go wrong (unless you don’t get one at all, that would be sad).

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Woman cannot live on trdelnik and fried cheese alone (though I can ride it out for a surprisingly long time, intestines be damned), so I also found a small chain of gelato shops (they have at least two locations) called Angelato.  It certainly wasn’t the most amazing gelato I’ve ever had, and their lemonade was appalling, but the pistachio gelato was tasty and cheap (a scoop is under a quid), so we grabbed a cone from there every night.  There is also soft serve available in a variety of flavours for about 50p a cone, which was a joy to someone who is so damn sick of unflavoured Mr. Whippy.

I can also recommend that strudel from Susta Strudl I mentioned in the Vitkov Monument post.  Just don’t try to visit it on a weekend; they’re not open then.  The national soda of the Czech Republic is kofola, which tastes like watered down Coke, kind of gummi coke bottle-esque.  I also found a candy bar that was almost my last name (the “Sojove” bar; my surname is Sajovie), but I cannot recommend that anyone eat it under any circumstances.  I found out (after taking a revolting bite) that it is a “rum-flavoured soya log,” and is every bit as terrible as the name implies.  Fortunately, beer can be had for about 50p a mug, so it’s easy enough to wash the taste of any regrettable foreign sweets out of your mouth.  (Food is general is pretty cheap; we managed to get a full meal (if you consider my fried cheese to be a full meal, with chips I’ll give it a pass) including beer for about a tenner.)

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Prague is a city of hills, and you will find yourself doing a lot of walking up and down them; it’s unavoidable. However, one of them does have a funicular attached that you can ride with a normal public transport pass.  Unfortunately, this means that everyone rides it, and it gets unpleasantly full.   I had the misfortune of being seated in front of a baby that let out an ear-piercing screech every three seconds, so I was pretty much deaf by the time I reached the top. If you are less deafened and cranky than me, there is some stuff to see up there, but it’ll cost ya.  There’s some kind of Eiffel Tower-esque thing, a couple churches, some gardens, and an “enchanted grotto.”

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There are also prune plum trees, and shhhh, I might have snatched one off the tree.  My grandparents used to have prune plum trees (my grandma put them in pierogi sometimes) and they are my absolute favourite plums, so I was super excited to see them.  It was a little under ripe, but I didn’t get the runs or anything, so it’s all good (I’m probably talking about my bowels too much in this post, sorry).

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Let’s see, other touristy shit includes the Lennon Wall, and some stupid love lock bridges.  I hope my readers wouldn’t think of contributing to a love lock bridge anyway, but seriously, please don’t do it.  It not only looks dumb, but it ruins the bridges. Also, there was a delightful man-statue sticking out over the river behind that bridge, and you could barely see it because of all the stupid locks, which pissed me off even more.  I just don’t understand it.  I also don’t really get the John Lennon Wall thing, because there’s only a couple tiny pictures of him anyway, and then the rest is just random awful looking graffiti.  Ugh, and Segways, can I just say how much I hate those Segway tours?  Some man tried to talk us into going on one, and literally chased us up the hill on his Segway as we race-walked to try to get away from him.  It would have been comical if it wasn’t so bloody irritating.

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But calm down now Jessica, there’s a King Wenceslas riding an upside down horse statue inside some random shopping mall, and it’s pretty excellent, disturbing bestiality-connotations aside.  Speaking of animals, Prague has a crapload of spiders.  You will notice spiderwebs on the railings of all the bridges (which will make you not want to touch anything), and on all the bushes and traffic lights.  They are big gross spiders as well, so it’s something to be aware of if you visit in the summer and have some arachnophobia going on.

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And at last we come to what was genuinely one of my favourite parts of Prague.  Right behind my hotel (I could see it from the window on the end of my floor), there was a sort of semi-abandoned amusement park. It’s called Luna Park, and is probably about a mile and a half north of the city centre (dunno what the district I was staying in was called, but I’ll put it on the Maps page, so you can find it that way).  I love reading about the old World’s Fairs, and I love old amusement parks and industrial looking Victorian architecture, so this place was a winner.

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The absolutely gorgeous main building, which may now be empty (part of it burnt down in a fire in 2008, and they’re repairing it), is called the Industrial Palace, and was built in 1891 as an exposition centre.  I love it to bits, and I could definitely picture some Great Exposition style show taking place there.

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There’s a few restaurants to the side of it, and behind it is a small amusement park, though the rides didn’t look terribly safe, and literally no one was riding them.  There were a few people working back there, but we were the only people visiting.  It felt slightly eerie, although apparently there’s a major fair held here in the spring, so that must be enough to keep it going.

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You’ll also find a big pyramid, where they apparently stage shows, and a Victorian dancing fountain attraction.  We didn’t pay to see it, but it was running when we peeped through the fence, and I have to say that it would probably be better at night when it’s lit up, as it was really nothing special during the day.  The dancing fountain at Tower City Center is more entertaining, and you can watch that one for free (I spent many happy hours as a child gazing at it).

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Finally, one of the buildings to the side of the Industrial Palace has some awesome busts adorning it.  If you’re staying in the centre of Prague, I don’t know that I’d make a special trip up for it (unless you like old Victorian shit as much as I do), but there are trams that stop right in front, so it’d be easy enough to do I suppose.

Well, that concludes my Prague adventure.  Considering we were only in the city for two and a half days, I think we crammed a lot in, and once I found some attractions away from all the tourists, I quite enjoyed myself, so I’d definitely go back some day.  When my stomach is ready to handle more fried cheese.


Prague: Franz Kafka Museum

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Kafka’s another one of those authors that I feel I should know better than I actually do.  I have a vague recollection of reading “The Metamorphosis” at some point, but none of his other works.  Nonetheless, the English major in me clearly likes the idea of visiting literary museums, and I’d heard the Franz Kafka Museum was (appropriately enough) meant to be rather surreal, so I was game.

The museum was clearly aimed at tourists, with a pricy (by Czech standards) 200 CZK (£5.50) admission fee, and guidebooks available in a range of languages, but everything in the museum is translated into English, so English speakers can safely skip the guidebooks (even though the lady at the desk may try to sell you one).  Other than the attempted upsell on the guidebooks, I quite liked the shop (across the courtyard from the museum, it’s where you have to go first to buy tickets), as they had an excellent range of postcards, much better than any I’d seen elsewhere in Prague (albeit with a price tag to match).  I also loved the “fountain” right in front of the museum; there seems to be some kind of phallic fixation in Prague, and this fountain was no exception.  The man on the left had a rotating pelvis, so that his pee-stream was directed from side to side. I was so impressed, I took a video (you can find it in my old posts on Instagram if you’re interested).

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There were no pictures allowed in the museum, so photos of the courtyard and of one of the passages into the museum will have to suffice.  Basically, you immediately head upstairs when entering the museum, and go into a dark room (seriously, if you wandered too far into the edges of the museum, you risked smashing into the weirdly shaped walls, it was so dark) that details Kafka’s childhood growing up in the Jewish quarter of Prague.  I was relieved (literally) to find a bathroom in the corner, as free public toilets are hard to come by in Prague; unfortunately, there was only one unisex stall, so I ended up waiting for quite a while to use it (please, add some more stalls!).  After that ordeal was over, I was able to read about some of Kafka’s friends (fellow intellectuals), and then move into the next room to learn about Kafka’s romances courtesy of some hanging shelves that gave me motion sickness.  For real, they swayed back and forth like we were on a ship or something, and trying to read them was slightly nausea-inducing, which was a shame, because they were interesting.  Finally, I was most keen to learn about the progression of Kafka’s tuberculosis (before visiting the museum, I wasn’t even aware that he was consumptive), since tuberculosis is one of my favourite diseases.  Yes, I know it’s no laughing matter to the people who contract it (and it’s one of the top killers throughout human history), but I find it fascinating (and I still maintain that the only time Val Kilmer has ever looked good was when he was Doc Holliday dying from TB in Tombstone…I think I just have a thing for gaunt, pasty men).

There was a red-light infused portal at the end of the floor with steps leading down that I joked was the descent into hell, and I suppose it was, in a way.  This was the point where things got surreal (as I’d been hoping all along); really it dealt with the inspiration behind some of Kafka’s books and stories, but it did so in a rather fantastical way.  The gallery was basically configured like a giant filing cabinet that stretched on for the length of a couple rooms, and included constantly ringing phones and jabbering voices to give the visitor a real taste of the bureaucratic experience.  I could see how working in such a place (even a less exaggerated version) could be enough to drive one to the brink of madness (which is why I’ve always been terrified of office jobs (though it’s not like I’ve had much luck with non-office jobs either)).  There was also an odd little film in an all-white room that I think depicted a sketch coming to life (Kafka was a doodler, and I really liked his pieces of artwork that were in the museum.  I forgot to check if they had any prints in the gift shop, but I didn’t notice any).


The museum finished, rather lamely, with a boring round room that had early editions of some of his books, kind of a let down after all the surrealism (which also included a section about an imaginary torture device that Kafka dreamed about and used in one of his stories; the mock-up of it was really rather horrible).  I was a bit annoyed that no one had bothered to check our tickets at any point, but I would imagine they do sometimes, so I certainly wouldn’t recommend trying to sneak in without one, pricy (relatively speaking) though it may have been.

I do wish the museum was just a bit cheaper, but by British standards, especially that lame-ass Lamb House that the National Trust charges £6 for, I don’t think £5.50 was that unreasonable.  I really enjoyed all the surreal stuff, and I learned enough about Kafka’s life to make me interested in reading more of his work, though I’m still not convinced existentialism is my thing.  To be honest, the whole reason I have any kind of fondness for Kafka is because I read Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore in my early 20s when I was going through some emotional stuff, as people in their early 20s tend to do, and I loved it to bits and memorised a bunch of quotes from it, which maybe says more about my partiality for Murakami than Kafka, but it was still nice to find out more about him, especially as his life seemed so closely tied to the city of Prague itself (he once said something about all his life being contained within a certain square within Prague)…in this way I suppose he was similar to James Ensor and Ostend.  At any rate, I think the Kafka Museum is worth a look if you have literary inclinations/interests.  And definitely at least stop by to check out the fountain in the courtyard; it was one of my favourite things in Prague!  3/5.


Prague: Prague Castle

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I knew all too damn well going into it that Prague Castle was not going to be for me.  But I guess it’s one of those things you’re supposed to see, and I don’t know when I’ll be in Prague again, so I went along with it.  The castle had two strikes against it from the get-go as it is: a.) very touristy and b.) up a large hill.  I’m way too lazy to be walking up hills, and I hate people.  I also wasn’t impressed with the queue to buy tickets, or the weird photographic licence you had to buy if you wanted to take pictures (50 CZK, and I only saw it being enforced inside the castle itself; the cathedrals were a free-for-all).

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Prague Castle is actually a large complex of buildings on a hill, and not just the castle, so there are different admission prices based on how much you want to see.  Due to my obvious lack of interest, we opted for Circuit B, which included the cathedrals, the castle, and the “Golden Lane,” but excluded a few of the exhibitions.  At 250 CZK (about 7 quid), it was fairly pricy by Czech standards, and I was glad we didn’t go with the 350 CZK Circuit A.  As you can probably tell from the pictures, St. Vitus Cathedral was a complete madhouse; not quite as bad as the Vatican, but close.

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The stained glass was gorgeous, but I always resent having to pay to visit a cathedral, especially because you were allowed to walk in the entranceway (probably not the official churchy term) without a ticket, you just couldn’t venture all the way to the back (the best of the stained glass was at the front anyway).  And another thing…even though I am not at all religious (I can’t emphasize this enough), my grandparents were, and so I light a candle for them whenever I visit a cathedral, because I know they would have appreciated it.  Usually, you drop a donation into a box, and then you’re free to select a candle, light it, and put it wherever you want to on the candle rack (or alternatively, light the candle of your choosing, if they’re the bigger votive kind).  Well, not here.  I put my money in the box, but then some man came up, thrust a tea light in my hand, whipped out a dirty old lighter to light it for me (usually they have little sticks you light off one of the other candles or a main flame, so it feels classier/more ritualistic), and then gruffly pointed at a spot on the rack to show me where I had to put it.  I don’t know, if I actually was religious, I probably would have been even more pissed off about it.

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We happened to walk out of the cathedral right around noon, which is when they do the changing of the guard, so we stopped to watch for a little while, although I was at the back of the crowd so I couldn’t see squat.  I got bored after a minute, due to my inability to see anything other than the tops of their hats, but I did like the band.  There was also an oompah type band near the entrance, who provide the musical accompaniment to traditional Czech dances done in traditional Czech costumes, which look very similar to Polish or really any other Central/Eastern European dances/costumes I’ve seen.  Not that I’m complaining; I kind of dig a good polka.

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So we left before all the hordes did, and headed swiftly over to the castle, which you really do need a ticket to enter.  As I said before, the photographic licence thing was “enforced” here, by a very meek girl who politely asked to see your licence and then quietly said, “please stop taking pictures” if you didn’t have one (I shouldn’t make fun of her I guess, I’d rather that than some burly security guard who smashed your camera in a fit of rage).  It was pretty spartan inside though, and it felt like you were only allowed to enter a very small portion of it.

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Fortunately, that part happened to include the window where the Second (and most famous) Defenestration of Prague took place.  Now, I took a fair few Renaissance and Early Modern History classes as an undergrad (well, my whole Master’s was on Early Modern History too, but I focused on England then), and I seem to remember discussing the Defenestration of Prague a lot.  Or maybe it just stuck in my mind because it was one of the few bits that was interesting.  Anyway, the Defenestration of Prague occurred in 1618, when the Protestants in Prague got pissed off at the Catholic Hapsburgs who controlled the government, walked into what was meant to be a civilised meeting with them, and ended up hurling a few Catholic officials out the window in a fit of rage (you know, as you do).  The officials survived, despite it being a third story window, which the Catholics tried to chalk up to a miracle (the Protestants blamed a dung heap), and it ended up being one of the catalysts for the Thirty Years’ War.  All I know is that there is something intrinsically amusing about the concept of defenestration (as long as it doesn’t end in death); in fact, I used to play a game with one of my old flatmates wherein we had to make up different variations on defenestration like decapifenestration, where someone cuts off your head and throws it out the window, or depedifenestration, where someone just cuts off a foot and throws that out the window (yes, we were nerds).  So I was exceedingly pleased to see the window where this all took place (I dunno whether it was actually the same glass and everything, the sign next to it was pretty vague, but still), and this was by far the most enjoyable part of the Prague Castle experience for me.

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There was also a balcony where you could see exactly how far the defenestrated men must have fallen, and some upstairs rooms (that we almost missed, because you have to walk past the exit to find a staircase leading off the main hall) with some amusing plaster animal heads that I suppose are copies of ones that adorn the castle (though I didn’t notice the real ones; they were probably way up in the rafters), but none of this compared to the joy of seeing the historic fenetre.

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We also got admission to St. George’s Basilica, which was far less impressive than St. Vitus’s Cathedral.  You probably could have poked your head in for free, and again, save for that funny looking painting of a man up there, the most interesting part was what I think were relics on the way out of the basilica.  They weren’t really that great of relics; in fact, except for some bones at the bottom of one, I’m not even sure what they were (nothing like Catherine of Siena’s head in Italy, which is creepy and neat and definitely worth seeing).

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The last area our tickets covered was the “Golden Lane,” apparently so named because a lot of goldsmiths used to work there (I guess because it was right next to the palace, and it was probably the royal family and courtiers who bought a lot of the gold).

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It was made up of brightly painted cottages that I think I was supposed to find adorable, but they were just kind of meh.  We ended up wandering into some armoury museum, having been promised an amazing and unique experience by one of the signs.  It turned out to be a very long narrow room with a few suits of armour and weapons and things in it (granted, the bird armour was cool), but you had to just shuffle along single file because there were so many people.  It was also completely airless in there, which was not welcome on a very hot day.  At least it was included in the admission price.

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Some of the cottages (the ones that hadn’t been turned into gift shops), had little re-creations in them to show what they would have been like when people of various professions lived in them.  The most popular by far was the fortune teller’s, which actually had a full-on line outside of it that I was not about to wait in, but Kafka supposedly lived at number 22 for a while, so I at least got a picture in front of that one, despite the obvious annoyance on my face at being surrounded by so many tourists (more on Kafka in the next post).

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There was some tower at the end of the Golden Lane, but I wouldn’t recommend going up it.  We walked up a shitload of steps just to see some lame fake “torture chamber.”

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On our way out, we managed to get a better look at some of the gargoyles outside St. Vitus (one of the exhibits our ticket didn’t include had more info about them).  It turns out that they included a frog (adorable) and a lobster (which is frankly more terrifying than any monster gargoyle could be, I hate lobsters).  There is also a statue of a boy with a golden penis.  I have no idea why he has a golden penis, or who he is, but naturally I got a picture with him too.

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I think it’s fair to say that I wasn’t terribly impressed with the castle’s offerings, as a whole.  I also didn’t appreciate that they charged to use the toilets there…didn’t I pay enough already?  The Defenestration of Prague window was by far the best thing they have to offer, and I’m still not even sure that was the actual window used (the sign was implying it was, but it didn’t actually come right out and say it…maybe it was a faulty translation).  Without the window, I would have been perfectly content to just wander the complex and look at the buildings from the outside, as St. Vitus’s Cathedral was really the only one with an impressive interior.  And I could definitely have done without the masses of tourists…this is why I generally aim for more unusual attractions – so I don’t have to deal with them.  2/5.

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Prague: Czech Police Museum (Muzeum Policie CR)

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The Danish Police Museum and the Criminology Museum in Rome remain two of my most popular posts, so I wanted to carry on the tradition by visiting the Czech Police Museum, despite reading beforehand that virtually nothing was in English.  Perhaps surprisingly, given the subject matter, the museum is housed in a prettily painted building that used to be a monastery (and sick house), in a secluded spot at the end of a residential street.  Admission is a mere 30 CZK (about 80p), so I figured even if I couldn’t read anything, at least I wasn’t wasting very much money on it.

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Well, I may have not been able to read any of the captions, but I definitely got my money’s worth, because the museum is massive!  A lot of the main portion of the ground floor wasn’t terribly interesting, as it just consisted of photos with a lot of Czech text, so I didn’t really know what was going on.  But there were smaller rooms off the main gallery (which wrapped all the way around the building), and these were more promising.

One of the highlights of the museum used to be the preserved body of a police dog called Brek, who apparently was used to “sniff out” dissidents during the Communist era (sounds a bit grim really), but I think he’s now buried in the grave out back.  However, there’s still a stuffed dog in there, so he presumably either isn’t real, or is the body of some other German Shepherd.  I didn’t touch it or anything, but the fact that it was just sitting out on the floor and not in a glass case or anything makes me suspect it was probably not a real taxidermied dog.

As always, I was excited to see the murder section, which contained some death masks of executed criminals, a suitcase that once held a dismembered torso of a woman (bloodstains intact), and a mysterious plank with a box attached that I couldn’t quite figure out the purpose of.  Lo and behold, I found a video player in the next room with English translations available, and learning more about the plank/box was one of the options.  To be honest, I really wish I hadn’t pressed that button, because I was a lot happier not knowing what it was.  I’ll spare you the details; they made me feel sick to my stomach (and this is coming from someone who reads a lot of historical crime nonfiction) but suffice it to say it was a torture box designed by a serial killer.  So yeah, you may want to skip the videos unless you don’t mind learning more than you bargained for.  I should also say that there were a lot of very graphic photos of murder victims who’d literally been hacked to bits, so if you have a weak stomach (I generally don’t, except where torture is concerned I guess), I’d maybe skip this section of the museum (it’s pretty much all concentrated in two rooms, so it would be easy enough to skip).

The only other English part was another video player in the forensics section, which was safe enough for those of a less macabre bent, but kind of boring as it was all basic info about the history of forensics that I already knew from visiting a number of these types of museums.  I think there was meant to be some interactive stuff in the forensics section, but none of it seemed to be working properly, and it was all in Czech besides.

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I was already satisfied I’d gotten my 80p’s worth after seeing the ground floor, but there was still a whole other floor above us, so we went to check it out.  You weren’t supposed to take pictures in the museum, but we couldn’t resist snapping a few shots in the black light room (in my defence, it didn’t contain any sensitive information or anything, but I probably still shouldn’t have done it).  I think this was supposed to show the effects of taking hallucinogens, presumably to deter visitors from using them; however, I gotta say that this room was awesome, so they may want to rethink their anti-drug campaign if this is it.  Same thing with a different room warning about the effects of partying too hard, with its thumping bass and unintentionally funny tableaux.  I was glad these things were there though, since a good chuckle was much needed after learning about that awful torture box.

Alas, there were still some depressing stuff up here, namely a guillotine room/shrine with mournful music.  As far as I could work out, it was dedicated to victims of the Nazis who had been executed on the guillotine (I’m not sure if the one there was the actual one used…I kind of hope it wasn’t, but it may well have been).

In what I think was another attempt to brighten things up, the last room was completely full of children’s art.  I don’t know why, unless it was, as I said, just to cheer visitors up before they left, because most of it was very cute (especially the elephants), but it did seem oddly out of place.  I feel like at many points in the museum some English would have been an enormous help; that said, I’m probably not their target audience, so maybe the demand for it just isn’t there.  But really, even just a guidebook with a basic description of all the rooms, like they gave us at the Police Museum in Denmark, would have been tremendously useful, and might attract more visitors.  As it stands, I think this was the most depressing police museum yet (based on subject matter, not the lack of English).

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After leaving the museum, we headed out the back way, which seemed to be set up like some kind of driving obstacle course.  There was also the grave of Brek, that police dog.  I’m not sure why he’s shown such reverence if he was actually used to harm dissidents…not that it’s the dog’s fault, but strange nonetheless.

Due to the complete lack of English inside the museum (except for those videos), I left with far more questions than answers, but to be fair, I knew what to expect language-wise coming in, so that was my own fault.  Still, for 80p, I think it was alright, as there was plenty to look at, and I did enjoy the anti-drug displays (though perhaps not in the way they intended).  So I’ll give it 3/5, but reiterate my warning that much of it is pretty gruesome, and you won’t understand most of what is in the museum unless you read Czech, so it certainly isn’t for everyone.  And on a slightly cheerier note (I suppose…), I’m turning thirty tomorrow, so in addition to a few more Prague posts, if all goes to plan, I’ll have a few more awesome-looking museums to tell you about when I return from my birthday trip!

Prague: Death Exhibition at the National Museum

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Remember that death series happening around Prague that I mentioned in my last post? (You can just scroll on down to it if you don’t, not that it really matters.)  Well, to carry on with that, here’s the exhibition at the new building of the National Museum, which is right next to the old building, at the end of Wenceslas Square.  As far as I can tell, the old building is currently under construction, so only the new building has exhibitions in it, and even then, it appeared to be limited to two temporary ones.  It’s 160 CZK if you want to see both of them, but the Noah’s Ark exhibit seemed like it was aimed at children, so I opted to pay 100 CZK (around 3 quid) to see just the death exhibit.  Until now, I couldn’t figure out why it was called SMRT; because it was all caps with no vowels, I assumed it was some kind of acronym (or a Simpsons joke), but it turns out that smrt means death in most Slavic languages.  No idea how you say it with no vowels though! Smert?

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The death exhibition is on the ground floor of the building, and turned out to be divided into three separate sections.  The first was called “Life and Death in the History of the Earth” and was more like a natural history exhibit, with lots of taxidermied animals and facts about death in the animal kingdom.  Fortunately, this being a major museum, everything was translated into English.  However, rather oddly for a new exhibition, the signs had a dated look to them.  I don’t know, the whole exhibition felt rather old-fashioned, which is no bad thing, but not what you’d expect from a large national institution in this day and age.  So there was plenty to read, but not really anything interactive, which was ok as at least it meant there weren’t many children in attendance (well, because of that and the subject matter, I suppose).

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My favourite aspect of the exhibition was the creative manner in which some of the things were translated into English.  For example, the description of that vulturey type bird above as “bad-looking.”  Delightful.  After a few rooms discussing various types of predators and poisonous (and venomous) plants and animals, the exhibit segued into ancient burial practices, with a display of some mummies and skeletons.  There were also some items found in the burial ground of a medieval monastery.

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This section of the exhibition was by far the largest, and I particularly liked the skull-lined room in the narrow hallway leading out of it.  However, the next section, called “Dealing with Death,” was probably the most interesting, at least to my morbid sensibilities.  It began with a discussion of anatomy, and some early modern anatomists like (my favourite) Frederik Ruysch (love his work), and then progressed into the various ways people die.  So there were some exciting stories of famous Czech murder cases, a re-creation of a crime scene, and a whole room full of execution devices, most of which appeared to have actually been used. The wheel, used for smashing people’s bones systematically until they eventually died, was probably the most horrible (they’d smash your vital organs first if they liked you, otherwise you had to wait until after your limbs and stuff got broken), but the scaffold creeped me out a bit too, as that had definitely been used at some point. (For more on historical methods of execution, The Faithful Executioner is worth a read, although all the conjecture gets a little annoying.)

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There was also an educational room about suicide, which broke down the methods people use by gender, as well as the suicide rates of various professions.  And some posters discussing famous people who had committed suicide.  Most moving of all was the part on end-of-life care, which carried on into the main hall of the museum with a film about an older gentleman who’d moved into hospice.  I watched a few minutes of it, and it seemed sad, yet honest and informative (I didn’t want it to turn into another Up ordeal where I started crying in public, so I wasn’t going to watch the whole thing in case the guy died at the end).

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The final section, entitled “Dealing with Death and Funeral Rituals” was by far the smallest and was again mostly an overview of ancient funeral customs, with some Greek and Roman objects found in grave sites, but also included things like funeral music (with headphones for listening), and some of the items used in modern embalming techniques.  This was probably the least enjoyable section, for me, as a lot of it was on religion and anthropology, which admittedly aren’t my favourite topics.

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I guess this exhibition wasn’t quite what I was hoping for (I think I had something less natural history related, and more goth in mind, maybe), but it wasn’t bad, for all that it felt rather dated.  I really did like the second section on “Dealing with Death” quite a lot, and for three pounds, it was a decent way to spend an hour. I’m happy that something like this was offered, as I think death is a fascinating topic, even if some of the content wasn’t necessarily what I would have preferred.  3/5.


Prague: National Memorial on the Vitkov Hill

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A few weeks ago, I went on a VERY spur of the moment trip to Prague (as in, we found a really good deal late on a Monday night, and left on a Wednesday morning).  Therefore, I didn’t have quite as much time to plan things out as I normally would, but with a little help from Atlas Obscura and my trusty (albeit outdated) Weird Europe book, I think I found enough off-the-beaten-path stuff to do.  Actually, I discovered a special death themed series of exhibitions taking place throughout the city thanks to an article that appeared in The Times a couple weeks before we were even thinking of booking the trip (which might have helped tip things in Prague’s favour, though frankly the flight + hotel prices were enough to do the trick).  The National Memorial on Vitkov Hill was one of the locations hosting this exhibition.

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Truthfully, the whole reason I wanted to go to this part of town at all (because it’s quite far from the centre) was because I had to try the strudel from Susta Strudl, and getting strudel AND going to a museum seemed marginally less ridiculous than going half an hour out of the way just for dessert (well, breakfast, technically).  Before I’d ever been to Europe, Passport to Europe with Samantha Brown was one of my favourite shows, and I remembered that she visited this little hole-in-the-wall (literally) strudel shop on one of the episodes, and walked off with this massive pastry for a stupidly low price.  I knew that if I ever went to Prague, I’d have to do the same, even though I’m not that big of a strudel fan normally (because why have fruit when you can have cake?).  Fortunately, there’s a tram that runs nearby (and you probably should take the trams whilst in Prague: they’re cheap, an easy way to see a lot of the city, and they really bez it along those tracks, which is pretty fun), at least, nearby if you don’t accidentally miss the stop and get out four stops later like we did.  So we (eventually) procured a good foot of still-warm apple strudel for something like 42 CZK (about £1.15), and I can safely say it lives up to the hype.  It was probably lucky we ate a huge quantity of pastry, as we needed the energy to walk up the massive Vitkov Hill.

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Upon reaching the top, we were greeted with the sight of a rather bleak Soviet-era structure complete with a gargantuan man-on-horseback statue.  Admission to everything inside the monument is 120 CZK (just over 3 quid, I loved the exchange rate), including the current temporary exhibition, Famous Funerals (part of the SMRT Death series), which runs through March 2016.

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Getting around the National Memorial is slightly confusing, as it involves a lot of back-tracking and it wasn’t immediately clear how we got to the roof-top viewing area (more on that later), but almost everything was translated into English, so at least we could read the posters and labels.  The main room on the ground floor contained a brief history of communism in the Czech Republic (here’s a tip, you can save yourself the climb up the stairs hidden on the sides of the main display, because there’s nothing up there), and led into a number of ante-chambers, one of which was a WWI memorial.  At the other end, we found a mausoleum that was intended to hold some high ranking Communist officials, though I’m not sure how many people actually ended up being interred there.

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The Famous Funerals exhibit was also on the ground floor, and was devoted solely to famous Czech funerals (obviously, I guess), so I’d never heard of any of the people mentioned in it, but it was still interesting.  There were some fabulous death masks, and a mourning brooch made from Bozena Nemcova’s hair (I’m still not entirely sure who she was (Wikipedia just says she was a writer during the Czech National Revival movement), but I noticed she was on the 500 CZK note, so she must have been important).  I also learned about the sad case of Jan Palach, a Czech student who immolated himself to protest the crushing of the Prague Spring movement.

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The next room was also a mausoleum of sorts, and it contained some gorgeous mosaics that I think were meant to honour various Soviet professions (sorry the pictures haven’t come out better; the lighting wasn’t great).  Really, the mosaics throughout the entire building were just fantastic; there’s something I really like about the style of a lot of communist propaganda…it manages to be wholesome and sinister at the same time.  I believe this room originally held the corpse of Klement Gottwald, leader of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia in the 1940s and ’50s, who was preserved Lenin-style and put on display until the decision was made to cremate and bury him in 1962.  I think he currently lies under a memorial in a corner of the mausoleum basement, but I’m not 100% sure about that.

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We’d been encouraged to go up to the roof-top viewing area by the admissions desk lady, but initially had some trouble finding it as the stairs only led up to the second floor and then kind of petered out.  We did find a small lift at the end of some hall, and a woman working there noticed us lingering, came over and gestured “up,” so we realised she would take us upstairs in the lift.  There were stairs that we took to go back down, although they came out in some different part of the building we hadn’t seen before, so I’m not sure if you can actually walk up that way, or you have to take the lift, but I’d probably recommend taking it up anyway, because there were a lot of stairs.

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At any rate, we were well rewarded when we reached the roof, because there was absolutely no one else up there, and the views were incredible.  Vitkov Hill is quite high, which came in handy here as we were able to see the whole of the city spread all around us. And you do pretty much have a 360 view, thanks to the lack of safety fences (just be careful around the edges, though they are quite high so you can’t really accidentally fall off).

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On our way out, we encountered the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (which I believe is free to visit without museum admission), and got a view of that horse statue from the front (since we’d approached the monument from the back when we arrived).  I loved how overblown everything in this memorial was.  I also appreciated the excellent views, and the complete lack of the tourists that plague the rest of the city (perhaps because it’s not in the centre, and does involve climbing that hill).  Though I think I maybe didn’t pick up on all the nuances about the communist era the exhibits were trying to get across, I did very much enjoy myself, and recommend it if you like Soviet art and want to get away from all the tourist traps.  Just bear in mind that aside from the exhibits on the ground floor, it is pretty much a big empty building, which I normally might not have dug so much, but something about those mosaics made the whole thing work.  And you should definitely get yourself a strudel if you’re visiting on a weekday (oh, and the Army Museum is at the bottom of the hill, and it’s free, so that might be worth a visit as well)!  4/5.

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