The More You See, the More It Looks the Same

Eating the local food. Seeing the local sights. Buying the local bangles. Watching the “drunkie cab” pass by. Five European cities in 14 days, and I’m struck by the sameness of a lot of it.

I’m in no way comparing Museum Island in Berlin to the Eiffel Tower in Paris to the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague or downplaying any of the sites we saw. But I am comparing how tourist destinations draw the same tchotchke place after place, although often with a local twist.

In every place, there is the tourist bus and, if location permits, the tourist boat. We did both on this trip. You’ll find an overabundance of souvenir shops, which we never set foot in except to buy a museum pass in Berlin. You’ll find those designer stores that normal people don’t shop in, charging way too much for weird-looking clothes with huge, gaudy designer labels. Horse-drawn carriages, pedicabs and the drunkie cab, our name for those rolling bars where (at least) half-drunk people pedal their way to further debauchery. And, I almost forgot, something to climb on to look over the city, which we also did.

Marilynn visited Prague in the fall of 1990, just after the people threw off their Communist shackles during the Velvet Revolution. She recalls a very different Prague from what we saw. Of course, most of those changes are positive.

But when did Prague become known for Thai massage parlours, where you can have fish eat the funk off your feet in a storefront window or get a massage in view of passers-by? We spotted nearly a dozen such places, including several that obviously have the same ownership. We saw three wax museums and at least two “museums” of torture.

And I’m not sure what to make of the Museum of Sex Machines, which Declan and I passed on our first morning in Prague. I didn’t want to stop and stare, but I did glimpse what appeared to be dildoes mounted on some sort of rolling contraption, similar to a water wheel.

A friend of ours, during lunch at a local, nonchain restaurant, said that hamburger bars had largely replaced pizza parlours as the tourist eatery of choice. She also told us about the trdelnik, a local “delicacy” of dough dipped in sugar and cinnamon, wound in strips on a cylinder and slow grilled rotisserie-style over a wood fire. We had seen several trdelnik stands in the extended Easter market near our hotel and a couple of storefront locations. She’s been in the Czech Republic since 1995 and had never heard of this dish until very recently.

Declan was determined to try Prague ham, which as far as I could tell, is, well, ham. His father grills pork frequently on his Big Green Egg, to the raves of nearly everyone. But hey, when in Prague…

Running on Empty … and Still Prague to Go

You get to the point in any long vacation where the sameness takes over. This vacation’s unfortunate victim of this phenomenon was Prague, an 11-hour, two train and a bus journey from Paris. But Marilynn received a Fulbright grant to give a talk at Charles University in Prague, so to Prague we went.

We stayed at the university hotel in a huge room on the second floor, with high ceilings, a wood floor and intricate painted beams that date from the Baroque period—and a view of the Thai massage parlour across the street that started early and went late. Old Town is the center of tourist way in Prague, so we had a front-row seat to the crowds, the revelry and the loud stag parties. Fortunately, the room had solid wooden shutters, and our sleeping areas were a good 40 feet from the windows.

The first morning, Declan and I checked out our immediate surroundings while Marilynn gave her talk. In addition to those massage parlours and too many souvenir shops to count, we found a small storefront shop that sold babushka dolls for nearly every professional football team imaginable. English Premier League, lesser English leagues, La Liga, national teams—there had to be hundreds. The store also has nesting dolls for popular movies (Harry Potter) and TV shows like “The Big Bang Theory.” It was a breath of fresh air amid the stale sameness.

Time to head home

After lunch with Marilynn and her university hosts, we walked to the Old Town Hall to watch the medieval astronomical clock chime the top of the hour. The clock, installed in 1410, is the oldest working clock in existence. At the top of the hour, Death chimes in, while the Apostles pass through two windows above the clock face and rats look on from the edges. Other dial faces show the sun, moon and astronomical details, while the third marks months. It attracts large crowds, so you have to jockey for a good look. Since we were staying close, Marilynn nipped out that night for another look when the crowds had lessened.

We also climbed the Petrin Tower, a one-fifth size replica of the Eiffel Tower that sits atop a steep hill. The tower and surrounding park are served by a funicular (think Incline Railway in Chattanooga) using timed tickets that also work on the city’s tram/bus/subway system. The tower affords impressive views of the city both at the midway point and at the top of 299-step structure. Disabled folks (and the wimpy) can take an elevator to the top, but that’s just cheating if you are able-bodied.

The Charles Bridge, dating from the 14th century and begun by King Charles IV, is another Prague highlight. It’s closed to vehicular traffic, giving people plenty of opportunity to peruse the 30 replica statues that line the sides and watch the Vltava River flow by (or take selfies). Three impressive bridge towers “protect” the structure.

This Bud is true

At a Chinese restaurant that was doing a booming business among the Asian tourist trade, Marilynn and I tried our first Budweisers, the original Budweiser beer that predates American Budweiser by nearly a century. All of the Czech beers we tried were delicious, but Budweiser stands out because it is so much better than the US version, which I use only for grill marinades.

Declan and Marilynn visited the Old Jewish Cemetery, the largest in Europe, that last accepted interments in 1786. Declan particularly liked the twisted grave markers and the realization of how old the cemetery is. They also toured three decommissioned synagogues, including the “really cool” Spanish synagogue, Declan says. They took lots of pictures for me, and Declan kept his commemorative yarmulke.

We tried to visit Prague Castle, the 9th century castle considered the largest in the world, but there simply were too many people. On the last day in the last city before starting the return trip, it was too much to attempt. Instead, we circumnavigated the castle walls, saw what we could see, and called it a day.