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├ívka’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.

Berlin: The Tattooed City

The third place I went to for my Europe trip was to Berlin, the capital of Germany. I was really looking forward to the trip because I spent a summer in Berlin four years ago for an exchange and absolutely loved it. I made a bunch of friends then and so I really wanted to catch up with them too.

Going back to Berlin after four years was quite nice. I’ve experienced and seen so much in the four years since I was last there and so I essentially see things through a different lens now. It was definitely interesting to check out all the things that changed and seeing the different sides to the stuff that hasn’t changed.

To me, Toronto is still the city I want to live, retire, and die in. I’ve challenged myself to find a city that’s better than Toronto and in all my travels Berlin is probably the city that comes the closest. Not only is it full of history and culture, but the people are awesome and the lifestyle fits my style quite a bit.

Relaxing by the Spree river.

Probably my favourite thing about Berlin is the character of the city. Every single city you go to has distinct characteristics that really define the atmosphere and feel of the city. It’s kind of the ambiance that wraps up your entire experience. Either it’s good and it makes everything you do better, or it’s not very good and things just don’t feel right. To me, the “dirtiness” of Berlin is one of the most defining traits.

And I say that in a positive light actually. I thought places like Malacca are kinda dirty, and even many parts of Korea aren’t very clean either. But Berlin somehow managed to make itself into a “dirty-in-a-cool-way” city. I don’t really know how to explain it.

But walking around the city, it’s really obvious as to what I mean. There’s countless amounts of graffiti everywhere. On buildings, cars, even on the remaining portions of the Berlin Wall. There’s millions of cigarette butts just strewn on the ground and on the train tracks. Beer bottles and other garbage are also very common in the city.

And yet, it just all works.

Some colourful graffiti on the East-Side Gallery.

Parts of Berlin just feels very edgy and cool. Like you took the most stereotypical tattooed gangster and turned them into a city. This is reflected in a lot of the young population too. Self expression and individuality is pretty strong amongst the young people and so you see lots of people with piercings, tattoos, and dyed hair.

This just fits perfectly with the city, and is honestly one of the reasons why I like Berlin so much. But of course, that’s not all of the city. Due to the Cold War and the Berlin Wall, there’s still a difference between the Eastern and Western parts of the city. The Eastern side has more of what I described above, and it just so happens that I stayed there during my exchange and during my trip, so it worked out well.

The Western side and the city center are a bit different, but they’re all sums of the same whole really. You have some more residential areas that really feel like a city suburb even though you’re still in the city with all of the conveniences. The city center is fairly modern and interspersed with historical buildings and other points of interest. That entire stretch between Tiergarten and Museum Island pretty much covers most of the standard sightseeing areas in Berlin. It’s perfectly walkable and doable within a day too.

The Brandenburg Gate.

I have to admit that one of the weaknesses of Berlin as a city is that it’s not very exciting to sightsee for a couple of days. You hit up the major sites within a day or two and then.. you’re done? There’s a lot of museums to check out as well, but for your traditional tourist, there really isn’t that much to do.

But I think that’s fine. After spending a summer in Berlin, I realized that the best part of Berlin is actually just finding your own niche and sub-culture. The people there are so multicultural and open minded that you can find a lot of underground things there and honestly there’s something for everyone.

For me that’s definitely video games. The gaming scene in Berlin is pretty huge and they even have their own Meltdown bar where you can drink, play video games, and even watch people play video games. I made most of my friends through that bar and it was definitely one of the highlights of my exchange. On the last trip back I made sure to go back and meet some of my friends too.

Meltdown Berlin, still my favourite bar.

And of course you can’t talk about Germany without talking about the beer. Berlin, like the rest of Germany, has pretty good beer. It’s also really cheap. In fact, a lot of the food in supermarkets are ridiculously cheap. It feels so good to just shop for food in Berlin.

But going back to beer, it’s cheap, accessible, and tastes good. What more can you ask for? Not only can you get a half liter bottle of good beer for like a dollar, but you can drink it anywhere. Outside on the sidewalk? Sure. On the trains? Yup. Even in one of the many parks they have in the city? Definitely.

People hanging out around the Soviet War Memorial.

Berlin just feels so stressfree and refreshing. And it’s not only because the alcohol laws are less restrictive, but because there’s just so many places to just relax. The city is filled with parks and other recreational areas so there’s always a place you can sit outside and just hang out and enjoy the weather. The city itself is also incredibly green for being such a large city and so it really does feel nice to be outside.

So yea, I really like Berlin. I would recommend it to everywhere to go check it out, at least for the historical significance of the city if anything. But the city really shines when you spend actual time there I think. Just have to go there and just enjoy.

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.