Gettin’ Bitten [Prague, Czech Republic]

If you think of yourself as a traveler, you probably have one. 

A trip. 

A location. 

Or a single moment that you look back to as the start of your addiction. 

Your bite.. from the travel bug. 

It got me in the fall of 2013 and you can get your groans out now because, yes, it was during my semester abroad. Judge away, I’m not bothered, I revel in that time like a pig in shit. Since 16, it was pretty much the only thing I knew I wanted to do after high school – I basically picked my college solely on pragmatics. I have my journalism teacher, and still one of the most independent, fearless women I’m lucky to know personally, Rae Kuklinski, to thank for planting that seed with stories of her time abroad in Germany. 

I made my first attempt at getting out of dodge as a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, wanting to learn about my German heritage and language by immersion. I know all of like nein words, and unfortunately none of UW’s exchanges in Germany had classes in English so I landed on their neighbor and language twin, Austria, as a second choice. Added appeal were the classes they offered about the wine industry, and yes, the curriculum included drinking it. Thus, I was pretty surprised and dejected to get denied based on not being an ag-major (big miss on the advisor’s part). 

My junior year was filled with pre-reqs, applying to the undergrad Kinesiology program (I was pre-Physical Therapy), and infinite jealousy of three of my rotating roommates migrating between Madison and semesters in Argentina/Spain/Peru. With the bulk of my major courses to take over the next 1.5 years, the door seemed pretty much closed, until an idea busted through it like the Kool-Aid man. In my senior year, I’d prioritize all of the Kinesiology major classes I’d need for PT school then change my major to Zoology to cut down on classes I have to take on UW’s campus. Those two moves would allow me to only need a half victory lap, save a semester’s worth of tuition to afford doing it in Europe, then graduate abroad from Prague’s Charles University [Univerzita Karlova].

I’ll be honest, before finding CIEE’s program, Prague wasn’t even a city in my geographical vocabulary; I’d almost guarantee I thought there was still a single country called Czechoslovakia at the time. So, although I scoffed at my mom for suggesting an English-speaking surrogate country, I had no clue what I was getting myself into. But it met my criteria for cost (lol one-dollar, one-liter beers), central location for ease of travel, and language immersion, so I took the leap of faith and never turned back. 

Anyone who’s been to Prague loves to use the term ‘fairytale’ to describe the city and though I dislike cliches they’re sometimes just plain correct. And if pictures are worth a thousand words, I’ll paraphrase as such –

Charles Bridge as seen from Petřín Hill, one of the city’s popular vantage points.

I lived centrally in Praha Pět (Prague’s district 5) at Zborovksa čtrnáct (14 Zzzzborovska Street). The apartment building informally known as The Pink Palace housed a bunch of students, a special subset of whom became my faux-family and travel squad. 

To say we were spoiled was an understatement and we knew it. This was my walk to class most days –

And the view from the walk home –

Even the mundane act of running to the nearby Tesco could be adorable –

I made conscious efforts not to take crossing Charles Bridge [Karlův Most], a structure ~400 years older than our country, for granted.

Tourists probably feel like Disney princesses flitting around, but when you peel away the wraps of trdelník you’ll find a grunge streak and counterculture stemming from the not-far-gone history of repression. My favorite class was studying cultural and social reflections in street art; it’s where my appreciation for the craft took hold.

A shot from Prague’s legal graffiti site – space dedicated for street artists do their thing without breaking the law.

I love to paint and I don’t like rules, so to me, making the act of rebellion visually appealing is rather masterful. Like when you’re mad at the president and float a massive purple middle finger down the Vltava River in front of the capital to let him know..

Many of the bars & clubs are still underground – a physical remnant of the Russian occupation and disapproval of all things creative or fun. It now makes for some really unique, but poorly ventilated establishments (at the time smoking indoors was still legal). 

Logistical challenges prevented me from ever making it to Cross Club, which probably would have been my favorite watering hole and music venue in the city. In lieu of that, U Sudu takes the #1 spot with its winding cave-like tunnels and low key-vibe. On the other end of the spectrum and quite contrary to the subdued nature of Czechs, was Radost (aka Ratchet) for those kinds of nights. Fun Fact: Rhianna shot part of “Please Don’t Stop the Music” there!

Another fun fact is that the Czech Republic is a hub for film production; the film program at CU is what specifically drew a handful of students there. For the one class I took, we got to take a weekend trip to try our hand at stop-motion and other types of animation, as well as tour the main Czech film studio and peruse one of their outdoor sets. 

The country is known for its beer consumption as they consistently take the cake for the ‘thirstiest’ in the world, putting down 143 liters per person last year. I’d be frequently flabbergasted (impressed?) to see people downing a liter with their weekday lunch.. But it kind of makes sense when this most prized liquid, originating from Pilsen [Plzeň], is literally cheaper than water. 

Traditional Czech food is a ‘meat & potatoes’ sort of spread – lots of beef/pork, sausage, dumplings, and goulash [guláš]. While those aren’t my favorite sections of the food pyramid, thinking of Svíčková na smetaně still makes my mouth water. 24-hour marinated sirloin is braised with root vegetables, which are then processed down with cream into a silky, rich sauce. A perfect match for the bread dumplings, made in Czec-heaven. And when cravings for Chipotle snuck up, we quenched them with local analog, Burrito Loco.

When I dream of Svíčková, this is the plate that I dream of.

The Czech Republic has a lot to offer outside of their capital city as well! Bohemia is the main/beer region of the country, but Moravia is known for its white wine and slivovice, a plum brandy, production. On a school-sponsored weekender we had the pleasure of visiting a small producers’ (basement) cellar to enjoy the fermented fruits of his labor alongside cheese and his wife’s homemade treats. They even let us cork our freshly bottled souvenirs!

One weekend, my travel squad put together our own field trip to Český ráj aka Bohemian Paradise. The national park is home to giant, mossy columnar rock formations akin to China’s famous Floating Mountains that inspired Avatar’s Pandora landscape.

So yeah, a magical fairytale is an accurate description of my time in the Czech Republic. There may not have been unicorns, but there were plenty of other zurprisez (like how much they love the letter Z). And just like experiencing Europe was the only thing I knew I wanted to do as a kid, those four months are the reason exploring the world has been the only thing I’ve known I wanted to do as an adult. 

That travel bug has a memorable bite and some potent, lasting venom. Seven years of longing, grinding, and meandering later.. and I’ll finally be getting the antidote!

And some more photos I couldn’t not share –

Český Krumlov – a quaint town a few hours outside of Prague – makes a nice day trip!
A view of the Christmas Markets in Old Town Square!
The iconic crest from Kutná Hora’s famous Sedlec Ossuary, or Church of Bones, which contains the remains from an estimated 40,000 people.
Closing with the money shot of the most draw dropping sunset I’ve seen.. maybe ever. Over the Vltava River, with Charles Bridge in view.

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