Prague: The City of Spikes

The fourth, and second-last, city that I went to on my Europe trip was to Prague. One of my Dutch friends claimed that Prague was the “most beautiful city in Europe” and so I really had to go check it out. I was skeptical of course, I mean, Europe has so many beautiful cities.

Getting off the train from Berlin, my very first impression of Prague, well, wasn’t so great. Our accommodation was a few stations north of the city center and honestly it wasn’t the greatest area. It looked kinda run down and honestly felt like your stereotypical Slavic residential area.

A monument by Hl√°vka’s Bridge.

After figuring out the transportation and currency (fun fact I’ve been to more European countries that don’t use the Euro than do) we took the subway down into the Old Town.

And before I start writing other stuff, the subway was actually pretty interesting. Now, I’m not really sure who actually built the Prague metro, but the style of it is almost a copy of the ones in Russia. The similarities are very clear, from the escalators going down to the type of trains and even to the timer that shows you when the last train left. Either way, what I guess I’m trying to say was that you could really feel the Soviet influence.

We meet again, long escalator.

Anyways, back to the actual city. Like I mentioned before, my initial impression wasn’t very great. But once I actually got into the city center and the Old Town, everything changed.

Prague honestly is a really beautiful city.

Like many other cities in Europe, they limited the building heights in the city center so that you don’t have a lot of towering buildings obscuring the view of older historical elements. One thing that stuck out to me is the amount of orange they have. So many of the buildings have orange roofs so when you look out over the city you just see a sea of uniform colour which is quite pleasing to the eyes.

Buildings by the river.

Towering above the buildings are a bunch of spikes. The churches in Prague are all built with spires that tower over the other buildings and they just look so pointy. Everywhere you go you can see some sort of point sticking out in some cluster of building. It’s definitely a different style of building than what I’ve seen before and it honestly looks pretty cool.

My favourite area in Prague by far is just walking along the Vltava river. Especially during sunset when the sun is just above the mountains and illuminates the entire city in a golden glow. That view is just wonderful. You have the river, the sea of orange buildings, the spiky churches, and to top it all off you have the Prague Castle in the background. Just an amazing view. On our last day we actually ate dinner at a restaurant by the river just for the view.

Some random octopus in the river.

Prague really does feel like a place where you can just walk around and enjoy the city atmosphere. There’s so many quaint little shops and restaurants and everything just feels so nice.

However, that said, there is something pretty terrible about Prague. The backpackers.

I’m honestly not a big fan of backpackers. I’m all for travelling on a budget and whatever, but it really ruins the atmosphere of the place when you’re walking down a really nice area and there’s just like a ton of backpackers with their giant backpacks clogging the street. I guess Prague is really popular with backpackers just due to it’s location and so there’s just so many of them.

And of course, you have all your regular tourists too. So the end result is that Prague is beautiful, but also kinda feels like a giant tourist trap where a lot of the sightseeing areas are just pandering to tourists and foreigners. It doesn’t really feel that culturally authentic. For example, I was really looking forward to seeing Charles Bridge, the famous bridge with all the statues. But you get there and all you see are people with selfie sticks and cameras. Makes it hard to appreciate the actual place.

So many people.

It does get a bit better once you leave the main tourist areas, but of course, as a tourist with limited time, I do want to check out the main sights.

Speaking of main sights, there’s actually quite a lot to see in Prague. One of the most famous ones is the Old Town Square. The square is quite nice, a bunch of cafes and shops with a pretty cool looking church overlooking the place. When we went there was a dude with some bubbles and a bunch of horses walking around which just added to the atmosphere.

Near the square there’s also the the Astronomical Clock, and there were a ton of people there. It turned out that everyone was waiting for the clock to ring so I expected it to be some really cool spectacle but.. it really wasn’t. Some stuff was moving around and the bell chimes, but honestly it didn’t seem that impressive.

Bubbles entertaining people in the Old Town Square.

Another famous landmark, and maybe the most famous, is Prague Castle. It’s a complex situated on top of a small mountain and so it’s quite visible from around the city. The most striking thing about the complex is the church, which is huge. The inside of the church is also incredibly beautiful and definitely worth checking out.

The rest of the castle complex wasn’t quite as exciting, but there are areas where you can get an awesome view of the city. Seeing Prague from above is honestly such an experience. Like I said, Prague is incredibly beautiful and so any panoramic view is just wonderful. We ended up getting a beer and just sitting somewhere just looking out over the city. That was really nice.

Cheers to you Prague.

It was especially made nicer due to beer too. Czech beer is wonderful. There was a pub called the Prague Beer Museum that we went to which just served a ton of craft beers. That was awesome. It wasn’t very expensive and tasted so good. That’s definitely one thing I miss about the place and I find myself on the lookout for Czech beers now when I go to the store.

And just to add a tiny bit more before wrapping up this post, there is a small town east of Prague called Kutna Hora which I also visited. They have the Sedlec Ossuary there which is very unique. It’s essentially a small church filled with the bones of like 40,000 people. Very cool place and totally worth visiting if you ever go to Prague.

A chandelier made out of human bones. Spooky.

In conclusion, I really liked Prague. I enjoyed the time I spent there and kinda wish I could go back even like right now. The city is absolutely beautiful and there’s a lot to see, eat, and drink. I don’t know if I can call it the most beautiful city in Europe considering I haven’t been to all the European cities yet (someday!) but it definitely is up there. The next time I go though, I want to explore the non-touristy areas a bit more. Just to get away from the backpackers and inflated prices.

Moscow: The Soviet Capital

So I have a really bad track record of putting out these blog posts on a consistent basis huh? Since the last one I got sidetracked by life since I ended up moving back to Canada from Korea. I’ll likely write another blog post about this sometime in the future.

Until then, I’m back to writing about my Europe trip! The second destination that I went to was Moscow, the capital of Russia.

After a nine hour overnight train ride from Saint Petersburg, I was in Moscow. I was excited about getting a chance to visit Moscow because to me, that was “real Russia”. Saint Petersburg is a special city, and as such it is quite unique. Moscow, however, is the capital and should be more representative of what Russia is like as a whole. The difference between the two cities were apparent from the moment you stepped off the train.

It’s hard to miss the giant Soviet era buildings.

The view from the Leningradsky Railway Station.

Now before I go on, yes, I know that the Soviet Union fell apart decades ago. I was born a year after the dissolution and coupled with my Western upbringing and education, my knowledge and impression of the Soviet Union and Russia is biased, as you might imagine. This made it even more exciting for me to go to Moscow because not only is it the capital of Russia, but it was also the capital of the Soviet Union. Can’t be a better place to learn.

And man, Moscow was really neat. Everywhere you go you see remnants of the Soviet era. They developed so much of the city during that time and they just left everything there. The buildings, the statues, murals, everything. You never saw any Soviet flags being flown, but I saw so many depictions of that sickle and hammer that it might have actually been more common than the tri-colour.

 

The ceiling decoration in Taganskaya Station.

You hear about so many post-Soviet countries that went through a period where they just ripped down as much as they could that would remind them of that time, but Moscow, and probably Russia as a whole, embraces it as part of their history and it’s clearly visible no matter where you go.

For example, one of the places I went to was called Gorky Park. It’s a large outdoor park with lots of festivities and people just chilling and honestly the atmosphere there was quite nice. On the boardwalk next to the water there was a projector showing what the park was like during the Soviet era. It was really cool to look at that and compare it to what it looks like in modern times.

When you enter or exit the park, there was this giant arch with Lenin’s face on it and the Soviet emblem. Walk a bit further from there and you reach an art museum that has a garden filled with statues of Lenin, Stalin, and many other Soviet figures and symbols.

The entrance to Gorky Park.

You literally can’t escape it. It’s so ingrained into the city it’s absolutely fascinating because it kinda feels like the entire city is a time capsule. It really is like you’re delving into a different world. VDNKh, an exhibition center with an outside area and fountain, was no different. The fountain itself is made up of golden statues each representing a country of the Soviet Union and there are pavilions surrounding it which are also themed after areas and countries.

That entire area actually had a weirdly similar feel to Epcot in Disney World. Kinda made me think about what things would be like if history turned out differently.

The Friendship of Nations fountain in VDNKh.

Of course, no trip to Moscow would not be complete with a visit to the Red Square and Kremlin. Out of the all the sightseeing places in Moscow, it was the one I was most looking forward to. After going there though, I have to say that it’s nice to look around, but there really isn’t that much to do there.

Saint Basil’s Cathedral is one of the main attractions, and it’s really beautiful to look at from the outside but the inside was super disappointing. I was expecting an actual church but it’s actually a weird museum. The State Historical Museum was again cool on the outside, but you really needed to have a pretty in depth understanding of Russian history to appreciate the contents. Unfortunately, we were late to Lenin’s Mausoleum so I couldn’t go and see Lenin, but hey, I guess that will have to wait until the next time I go back to Moscow.

The Kremlin itself was also fairly nice to look at. The grounds outside has some monuments to World War II, and by extension the Soviet Union, and the inside has a bunch of nice looking churches to check out too. Overall I’d say the Kremlin was worth checking out.

The Red Square is quite red.

Another sightseeing place that I went to was Ostankino Tower, which fun fact, was actually the tallest tower in the world until Toronto’s CN Tower eclipsed it. The tower’s appearance is interesting and the view was alright. Moscow is fairly flat aside from the large Soviet buildings that are scattered throughout the city so the view isn’t that impressive, but it’s still kinda nice to visit.

The most interesting thing about the trip to the tower was the security. It’s pretty normal for towers to have some sort of security check to make sure you’re not going to bomb the place, but this tower had some pretty intense security. There were two metal detectors and a passport check, which is actually more than an airport. That was a bit inconvenient, but I guess it’s part of the experience.

The Ostankino Tower looks like some weird sci-fi tower.

Another thing I wanted to check out in Moscow was the Soviet Arcade Museum because come on, how can you not check that out? As a giant video game nerd and as a dude with an interest in modern history, that was literally a place I could not miss.

Growing up in Canada you know about the American and Japanese arcade machines. That’s pretty much all we had or would hear about. But it makes sense how the Soviet Union would’ve had their own arcades too, and again it makes sense how we wouldn’t have heard of it. The museum itself was a bit small but every machine was playable. They even gave you some Soviet coins for the machines because why change it if it works right?

The games were alright. Some of them had some interesting designs, like a foosball-like game but the bars are vertical instead of horizontal. But the most impressive thing in my opinion was the amount of augmented reality that was used. A bunch of the games actually had some form of AR integrated into the gameplay and that blew my mind. I certainly didn’t expect that.

One and a half floor of old Soviet games.

We only spent two full days in Moscow and I kinda wish we stayed for a bit longer. I think that to me, Moscow is worth visiting and explore just due to the stuff that I find interesting. If you have no interest in modern history or the Soviet Union, then maybe it’s not for you. But for me, I would definitely go back and check it out some more if possible.

Saint Petersburg: The Seat of the Russian Empire

So about a month ago (man, how often do I write blog posts about stuff I’ve done a month ago?) I embarked on trip to Europe. I just finished my master’s and so I wanted to make sure my grad trip was special.

Since I’ve already spent so much time in Asia, I decided that I wanted to go to Europe, a continent that I’ve only been to once and had a really big urge to go back to. So after months of deliberating of where to go and what to do, the day of my trip arrived. So I got to the airport and got on a plane to Russia.

The two largest countries in the world.

Yes, Russia. As a Canadian, Russia is not a very common tourist destination. It’s one of those countries that you hear a lot about (especially recently), but it’s also one of those countries that people don’t typically visit. For one, people don’t really know too much about it. Second, we require a visa to go and it’s honestly a pain to get, plus expensive. Third, well, it’s Russia.

Anyways, I wanted to go and since my girlfriend is Russian it makes sense for us to go together. So, we went. The first stop on the trip was to Saint Petersburg, which now has the distinction of being the most northern city I’ve been to in my life.

Prior to going there, I didn’t really know what to expect. Of course I know the Russian stereotypes and I’ve looked up some pictures online, but for the most part the city, and the country, was a mystery to me. So it was exciting because it was a chance to compare the real country to all the random internet memes and stereotypes that I’ve come to know.

Of course there’s McDonald’s in Russia.

You know how the first thing people say when you mention Russia is that it’s cold? Well, we went in the middle of July and man it was not hot. We may have been a bit unlucky with the weather but it was cloudy, rainy, and windy. Aside from one awesome day, the temperature was in the teens like the entire time we were there.

Weather aside, the city was awesome. It has all of those European elements that you would expect: the churches, the palaces, the squares, etc. But everything felt, bigger. The size of all the buildings were all huge, giving the city this grand atmosphere. It’s hard to explain, but you know that feeling when you see a tall building? It’s like that feeling, but in this case it’s because the building is long/wide.

A portion of the Winter Palace.

The Winter Palace is the best example of this. Man, that building is big. We didn’t go inside, but seeing it from the Palace Square or just from the waterfront is a spectacle in and of itself. The scale of the building, the colours, everything is just so ornate and impressive.

Speaking of ornate and impressive, you know the really famous church in the Red Square? The red one with the buildings that look like they’re tipped with ice cream. Well, Saint Petersburg actually has one of those too, it’s called the Church of the Savior on Blood. So not only does it have a really sick name, it turned out to be one of my favourite places in the city too. The city is fairly walkable and the church is near the historic core so you see it pretty often, and each time I saw it I was always impressed by how awesome the church looks.

The Church of the Savior on Blood.

We walked through the main street in the city, Nevsky Prospect, a bunch of times and it was really cool just walking down this street and just check out the random shops and buildings that were on it, but even cooler when every couple blocks you’d see a giant church or another impressive looking building. I highly recommend doing the walk down the street at least once, but make sure you take the subway too cause the subways in Saint Petersburg are pretty special, at least to me.

So I’ve heard a lot about the Russian subways before actually going to Russia, and Saint Petersburg did not disappoint. For one, it has one of the deepest systems in the world and so every station had this giant escalator you had to take in order to get to the platform. In fact, one of the stations,¬†Admiralteyskaya, is so deep that they had to make two giant escalators because “it’s difficult to build elevators longer than 125 meters”. Not only were the elevators long, but they were also super fast too, which was a nice change of pace compared to the slow Korean escalators.

One long escalator.

Aside from the depth, the subways are also kinda neat. They were built during the Soviet era and honestly it looks like nothing has changed since then. The trains look like they were built in a different generation (cause they were), and some of the stops even have these metal doors that open up when the trains arrive.

But one of the neatest things about the subway stops are the decorations. Each of the platforms are uniquely decorated and it gives off such a nice atmosphere. It’s especially interesting because some of the older stations still have a lot of Soviet decorations so you’d be walking down to the platform and see a quote by Lenin or hammer and sickle imagery. It’s a bit surreal but really cool.

Subway station celebrating Russian and Soviet science.

Anyways, enough of the subways. Let’s talk about boats next.

Saint Petersburg is right off the Baltic Sea and there’s a lot of rivers flowing through the actual city itself, meaning that there’s a lot of bridges and boats. We actually took a canal boat tour which was kind of a nice way to see the city, but the more interesting thing is what happens at night.

Every night, the big bridges are raised so that the big boats can get through. So what you have are these giant bridges that are just open and large shipping boats and cruise ships just take turns going through. This is kinda neat to see, but it’s also interesting because it means if you live on the other side of the bridge, you aren’t getting back home for a while.

This was cool to see, but it wasn’t as cool as what I expected based on what I’ve heard. Regardless, it was interesting because since we went in the middle of summer, the sun doesn’t actually fully set. So you could be like us, outside at 3 am by the water looking at these giant boats pass by these raised bridges while you can still see sunlight. It’s a bit unreal.

Sunlight and big ships at 3 am.

The last thing I want to talk about is Peterhof Palace, another one of my favourite places in Saint Petersburg. This was built by Peter the Great as one of his many palaces, and honestly it’s really beautiful. We were really lucky because the day we went was literally the best weather we could’ve hoped for cause it was sunny and warm, making the palace look even more grand.

There are a ton of fountains and statues on the grounds and it’s actually like the perfect size so you can see a lot without having to actually walk that much. Perfect for a leisurely stroll. There’s a lot of cool things in there, but by far the coolest is the main fountain by the entrance, which honestly might be the most impressive fountain I’ve seen. For one, it was big. Second, it had a lot of golden statues decorating the fountain area. Third, right behind the fountain was another grand looking building which made the entire view just fantastic.

Beautiful fountain.

Honestly the entire palace was great. It was a bit strange there though because it didn’t really “feel like Russia”. It kinda felt you could take the entire palace grounds and throw it into any other European country like Germany and France and it would fit right in.

And I think that’s actually one of the most interesting things about Saint Petersburg. It’s a Russian city, but it was designed by an emperor who wanted to emulate other large European cities, making it a really unique city since it’s the most “European” Russian city. That said, it’s unique among European cities too because it definitely has it’s own twist which makes it different and stand out.

Overall, I had a really great time in Saint Petersburg. The entire city is very beautiful and it was so nice to walk around and check out everything. The only thing is that since the city was founded a couple hundred years ago, a lot of the historical elements are lost on me since my knowledge of Russian history is a bit lacking. Regardless, I learned a lot and would definitely go back. I know this might sound crazy but I kinda wanna go in the winter. I think it’ll look even more magical then.