We found out in late June that our friends, Jim and Debbie Messemer, were planning a honeymoon in Prague so we decided to change our travel plans and catch up with The Newlyweds.  On July 16, we drove northeast from Munich, Germany, directly to the Czech Republic.

Our border crossing from Germany into the Czech Republic was surprisingly hassle free. We were prepared to be stopped and questioned but the police simply looked at our German license plates and US passports and waved us through the checkpoint.

Our first glimpse of the landscape in the Czech Republic reminded us of Germany (gentle rolling hills and patches of dense forests).  However, the houses were noticeably bleak and the buildings were not well maintained.  We sensed real sadness and a lack of spirit immediately upon entering the country.

We decided to stop in a famous town called Plzen that sits on the ancient highway between Prague and the great cities of Bavaria.  Plzen is credited with created the world's first bottom fermented golden lager.  Many people claim (including Hugh!) that Pilsner Urquell is the best beer in the world.  To come this far and not taste a fresh glass would be a crime. 

On our drive through Plzen, we almost missed the plant because of its Czech name, "Plzensky Prazdroj."  Luckily, Chris spotted a Pilsner Urquell banner on the side of one of the delivery trucks as it exited the factory, so we made a quick u-turn to check things out. After confirming with the security guard that this was "the place," we made a beeline for the bar.  Hugh was in beer heaven and thoroughly enjoyed his first fresh Pilsner.

We departed Plzen and arrived in Prague in the late afternoon.  We checked into our hotel and then walked across the famous Charles Bridge to meet Jim and Debbie for dinner at the Four Seasons Hotel.  After hearing about their spectacular wedding, they invited us to join them the following day on a car tour of a medieval town called Cesky Kromlov.  Cesky Kromlov has a huge castle that dominates the city and Unesco named it a World Heritage Site in 1992.

Once Jim and Debbie departed for the US, we spent the rest of the week exploring Prague's streets on foot.  Our hotel was located in an area called Mala Strana, a section of the city that has hardly changed since the 18 century.  During our long walks around Prague, we visited Hrandcany (Castle District), Staremesto (Old Town) and Josefov.  Josefov is a Jewish Quarter that is considered one of the most important ancient Jewish communities in Europe.

Prague's architecture is extremely beautiful and well preserved. The city is filled with spired towers and the views of the city from the hills and towers are fantastic.  Since the "Velvet Revolution" in 1989, Prague has experienced a rebirth.  Buildings have been (or are still being) restored and many houses are freshly painted in classical colors. Clothing, trinket stores, and internet cafes are sprouting up on every street corner.

To the outsider, Prague appears to be flourishing under capitalism. However, outside the city limits, visitors experience a much different picture of the Czech Republic.  Towns are filled with dilapidated apartment buildings that seem cold, lifeless, and drab.  Visually it is clear that the country has been through a dark, difficult and rough past.

We talked to a few people about life in a capitalist economy. Surprisingly, we were told that in a recent election, 23% of the vote went to the Communist party!  Apparently, the older generation and the disillusioned youth are supporting Communism because it is an easier way of life (beer was once 15 cents a glass, bread was virtually free and housing was cheap).  The Czech people are very simple and many have had a difficult time finding good paying jobs.  Capitalism has also created rich and poor classes that did not exist under Communism and some people yearn for everyone to be in the "same class" again.  Many people are still afraid of Communists regaining power, however, we find the prospect of this hard to believe now that so many people have had a real taste of freedom.

The amount of beer that people drink in the Czech Republic is astounding. There are pubs on virtually every corner and beer is relatively cheap.  Sadly, we saw many people staggering around town and in some cases people were falling down drunk.  Chris captured a series of pictures of a young drunk early in the morning when she was out in the city at daybreak.

The Czech Republic is well known for its Bohemian crystal; however, we did not purchase much crystal as the designs were a bit intricate for our tastes. We did purchase some wonderful artwork as well as a number of hand-carved wooden marionettes/puppets.

Overall, we found Prague to be a lively city with many interesting things to see and do.


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           copyright chris & hugh hempel 2004                                                      last modified on Monday, 12. January 2004