Czeching Out

DSC00945Cemeteries may not be anyone’s idea of a “tourist attraction”. Unless of course, you are one of those paranormal investigators or enthusiasts. However, to me at least, cemeteries can be an ideal place for an early morning amble for some quiet contemplation. And so it was, on the morning before I departed for Warsaw, I reflected on some of my experiences in Prague over the last few days.

DSC00632Prague was beautiful, but not spectacular. Something happened on the bus on my way back from Prague Castle that left a sour aftertaste in my mouth, like leftover beer from last night’s party. You see, I was ‘cornered’ by what I believed to be one of those plain-clothes ticket frauds, who preyed on unsuspecting tourists and insisted that it’s mandatory EU law that you carry a valid EU ticket on public transport, subjected to a fine of 50 euros if violated. Under normal circumstances, that wouldn’t even bother me a wimp, but on that day, I just had to forget bringing my ticket day pass (I had absent-mindedly left the pass in another pair of jeans the previous day). Be warned.

On my overnighter from Prague to Warsaw, that incident weighed somewhat on my mind. It wasn’t really the money that bothered me. Sure, you could argue that 50 euros wasn’t a large amount anyway. But it’s the entire experience – the fact that I was defenceless and had no way to communicate or retort in the same language. Fortunately, except for a couple of chatty Polish (who disturbed my beauty sleep), the overnight train proved to be safe and sound (I’ve heard stories of missing luggage and thieving passengers). An overnighter was also not such a bad idea to see the rest of Czech Republic and even Slovakia. This time though, I made sure the train pass never left my sight.  LS

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I never intended to visit Terezín. But the visit to Sachsenhausen a few days earlier had left such a deep impact on me that I figured I just might pull it off as a day trip from Prague.

From the documentaries I’ve watched, I found out a little about Terezín or Theresienstadt (German). This was Hitler’s propaganda camp – where he attempted to convince the world that the Jews were being well looked after. In fact, he tried to present it as a “model Jewish settlement”. In reality, Terezín was like a “bus interchange” of sorts. Jews deported here from all over Europe were housed temporarily before being shipped off to other extermination camps like Auschwitz or Dachau.

Today, unlike Auschwitz or Dachau, Terezín had not become a major tourist draw. On the day I visited, the place was deserted. Almost serene.

Terezín is about an hour’s bus ride from Holešovice train station in Prague. Constructed during the late 18th century on the orders of the Austrian emperor Jospeh II, the fortress of Terezín later served as a prison for military and political prisoners. After the Nazis marched into the former Czechoslovakia, they converted this red brick baroque fortress to house political prisoners. Later on, Terezín became known as an interim camp for Jews en route to other extermination camps in Europe.

It was estimated that approximately 144,000 Jews had been sent to Terezín. Of these, more than 60 per cent were transferred to Auschwitz and other camps. The remaining died in Terezín.

DSC01004Visitors to Terezín are greeted by an imposing church that stands in the middle of a large field. Inside the Jewish Museum Ghetta (just opposite the bus stop where I alighted), the image of this church was replicated in thousands of children’s sketches and crayon drawings on the walls of the Jewish Museum. Almost all these children had later been deported to Auschwitz and straight to the gas chambers.

I was not allowed to take any pictures here. But I will never forget those haunting images.   LS

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Where Doing Nothing Is Everything

There are many things you can do in Prague. But then again, you can also do nothing. Because wandering the cobbled streets of the Staré Město (or Old Town), sipping locally brewed Czech lager (and I’m not referring to Pilsner) at Holešovice or just sitting along the banks of the Vltava at sunset are some of the most effortless (yet ‘productive’) ways to appreciate this charming city.

DSC00558Prague may have lived past its post-Velvet Revolution tag of the “Paris of the East”. Tourist arrivals since the turn of the century have driven up living standards and costs, and made this once affordable city on par with its more illustrious West European neighbours. However, these have done little to diminish the city’s allure. Even on a weekday, Prague Castle and Charles Bridge are swarmed with visitors from an international potpourri.

DSC00898Thankfully, there are pockets of Prague to call your own. And you can find them in the less crowded neighbourhoods of Vinohrady and Vršovice, or the rustic back alleys of Provaznická and Karlin. But if you desire to do nothing, just pick a good spot in one of the many alfresco restaurants at Malá Strana (or the ‘Little Quarter’) and watch the world go by, with a Pilsner.  LS

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